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10 Scientists Who Experimented on Themselves

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getty images

Would you inject 50 hookworms under your skin for your job? Or steam in a vomit sauna for a few hours? Hopefully we non-scientists will never have to answer questions like these. But for the 11 brave souls on this list, experimenting on themselves was all in a day's work.

1. Jonas Salk

During his research at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, Dr. Jonas Salk discovered a potential vaccine for polio. When they needed healthy human test subjects, Salk volunteered himself and his entire family for a vaccine trial. The filial gamble paid off. Everyone tested positive for anti-polio antibodies. He refused to patent the vaccine, and never received financial compensation for his discovery. (When Edward R. Murrow asked Salk who owned the patent on the vaccine, Salk responded with one of his most famous quotes: “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”)

2. David Pritchard

In 2004, after years of research in Papau New Guinea, immunologist-biologist David Pritchard wanted to test his findings, specifically that certain parasites can improve the immune system's defense against allergies, and possibly more serious autoimmune illnesses. Circumnavigating more years of red tape, Pritchard used himself as the first test subject, injecting 50 hookworms under his skin. He was able to deduce that only 10 hookworms were necessary for future test subjects.

3. John Paul Stapp

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Air Force officer and surgeon John Paul Stapp's self-experimentation earned him the nickname "the fastest man on earth." In his research, Stapp repeatedly strapped himself into a rocket sled, nicknamed the "Gee Whiz," and was propelled forward at speeds close to that of sound. He would then brake abruptly to determine the human body's ability to withstand abrupt deceleration. Many broken bones and a temporarily detached retina later, Stapp determined a human body can withstand 45 g of forward motion with an adequate harness.

4. August Bier

At the turn of the 20th century, August Bier discovered spinal anesthesia. His method involved injecting cocaine into the cerebrospinal fluid. To test its effectiveness Bier enlisted himself. During the experiment, a mix-up left Bier with a hole in his spine leaking cerebrospinal fluid. Bier's assistant stepped in. Once the assistant was properly numb, Bier kicked his shins, bludgeoned and burned him, plucked out his pubic hairs, and mashed his genitals. The assistant felt nothing – a success the two celebrated by drinking excessively that evening.

5. Werner Forssmann

Werner Forssmann (left), Getty Images

In 1929 in the basement of the Eberswaled Hospital in Germany, surgical resident Werner Forssmann inserted a ureteral catheter tube into his elbow, feeding it through a vein up to his heart. He used a mirror as his assistant, since he had restrained his nurse to the operating table. He then took an x-ray of his chest (at left) to determine the catheter had indeed made it to the right atrium. Instead of praise, Forssmann was met with condemnation. This rejection led him to abandon cardiology for urology, but he was later rewarded with the Nobel Prize in 1956.

6. Nathaniel Kleitman

In 1938, sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman and his assistant holed up in Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. They were attempting to manipulate their sleep cycles to adopt a 28-hour day. With constant temperature and no natural light, the conditions in the cave seemed perfect. After 32 days Kleitman's assistant had successfully adapted, but Kleitman failed. Nonetheless, the experiment's results helped to advance their study of circadian rhythms.

7. Sir Humphry Davy

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While at the Medical Pneumatic Institute of Bristol, Humphry Davy studied gases. Through a series of self-experiments with oxides of nitrous, Davy created what is known today as laughing gas. Though his initial attempts were meant to reproduce the pleasurable effects of opium and alcohol, Davy would ultimately recommend the use of nitrous oxide as an anesthetic. His recommendation would not be heeded until long after his death, but nitrous became an instant hit at fashionable parties.

8. Kevin Warwick

During the late 1990s, Kevin Warwick had his team surgically implant a silicon chip transponder into his forearm for an experiment known as Project Cyborg. Through this implant, Warwick's nervous system was monitored by a computer system. According to his website, the neural interface allowed him to "operate doors, lights, heaters and other computers without lifting a finger." In other words, the future is now.

9. Albert Hoffman

Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman was researching the fungus ergot for a pharmaceutical company when he discovered lysergic acid. His initial tests were inconclusive, but Hoffman decided to retest a synthesized version of the acid. In April of 1943, he ingested 25/1000 of a gram of a substance he called LSD-25 in his lab. Legend has it, on his bike ride home his eyes were opened up to a brave new hallucinogenic world. To this day, LSD enthusiasts observe April 19 as "Bicycle Day." Hoffman would continue to experiment with LSD until his death at 102.

10. Stubbins Ffirth

Stubbins Ffirth would have been a shoe-in for the world's wackiest name contest. Instead, he found his own unique path to historical notoriety. After witnessing the devastating 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic, Ffirth hypothesized the viral hemorrhagic disease was not contagious. To prove his thesis, he tested the disease's characteristic black vomit. On himself. This included, but certainly was not limited to, pouring vomit into his open cuts or onto his eyeballs, drinking infected black vomit by the glassful, and stewing up to his waist in a veritable sauna of vomit. He would later rub blood and urine on his body as well, but ultimately avoided infection. In his 1804 book A Treatise on Malignant Fever; with an Attempt to Prove Its Non-Contagious Nature, he declared Yellow Fever not contagious. Turns out, Yellow Fever was contagious, but only through blood transmission via mosquito bite. Whoops.

What Pop Culture Gets Wrong About Dissociative Identity Disorder

From the characters in Fight Club to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, popular culture is filled with "split" personalities. These dramatic figures might be entertaining, but they're rarely (if ever) scientifically accurate, SciShow Psych's Hank Green explains in the channel's latest video. Most representations contribute to a collective misunderstanding of dissociative identity disorder, or DID, which was once known as multiple personality disorder.

Experts often disagree about DID's diagnostic criteria, what causes it, and in some cases, whether it exists at all. Many, however, agree that people with DID don't have multiple figures living inside their heads, all clamoring to take over their body at a moment's notice. Those with DID do have fragmented personalities, which can cause lapses of memory, psychological distress, and impaired daily function, among other side effects.

Learn more about DID (and what the media gets wrong about mental illness) by watching the video below.

Scientists Reveal Long-Hidden Text in Alexander Hamilton Letter

Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.

One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.

Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of Alexander Hamilton's handwriting
Hyperspectral imaging of Hamilton's handwriting, from being obscured (top) to isolated and revealed (bottom).
Library of Congress

The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do,
by comparing [them] with your [own]
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? Is there any thing you would put
in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
May [be] speedily [removed].

Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.

[h/t Library of Congress]


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