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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.

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Courtesy Murdoch University
Australian Scientists Discover First New Species of Sunfish in 125 Years
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Courtesy Murdoch University

Scientists have pinpointed a whole new species of the largest bony fish in the world, the massive sunfish, as we learned from Smithsonian magazine. It's the first new species of sunfish proposed in more than 125 years.

As the researchers report in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the genetic differences between the newly named hoodwinker sunfish (Mola tecta) and its other sunfish brethren was confirmed by data on 27 different samples of the species collected over the course of three years. Since sunfish are so massive—the biggest can weigh as much as 5000 pounds—they pose a challenge to preserve and store, even for museums with large research collections. Lead author Marianne Nyegaard of Murdoch University in Australia traveled thousands of miles to find and collected genetic data on sunfish stranded on beaches. At one point, she was asked if she would be bringing her own crane to collect one.

Nyegaard also went back through scientific literature dating back to the 1500s, sorting through descriptions of sea monsters and mermen to see if any of the documentation sounded like observations of the hoodwinker. "We retraced the steps of early naturalists and taxonomists to understand how such a large fish could have evaded discovery all this time," she said in a press statement. "Overall, we felt science had been repeatedly tricked by this cheeky species, which is why we named it the 'hoodwinker.'"

Japanese researchers first detected genetic differences between previously known sunfish and a new, unknown species 10 years ago, and this confirms the existence of a whole different type from species like the Mola mola or Mola ramsayi.

Mola tecta looks a little different from other sunfish, with a more slender body. As it grows, it doesn't develop the protruding snout or bumps that other sunfish exhibit. Similarly to the others, though, it can reach a length of 8 feet or more. 

Based on the stomach contents of some of the specimens studied, the hoodwinker likely feeds on salps, a jellyfish-like creature that it probably chomps on (yes, sunfish have teeth) during deep dives. The species has been found near New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and southern Chile.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Gregory H. Revera, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
Study Suggests There's Water Beneath the Moon's Surface
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Gregory H. Revera, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Astronauts may not need to go far to find water outside Earth. As CNN reports, Brown University scientists Ralph E. Milliken and Shuai Li suspect there are significant amounts of water churning within the Moon’s interior.

Their findings, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, lean on the discovery of glass beads encased in the Moon’s volcanic rock deposits. As recently as 100 million years ago, the Earth’s moon was a hotbed of volcanic activity. Evidence of that volatile time can still be found in the ancient ash and volcanic rock that’s scattered across the surface.

Using satellite imagery, the researchers identified tiny water droplets preserved inside glass beads that formed in the volcanic deposits. While water makes up a small fraction of each bead, its presence suggests there’s significantly more of it making up the Moon’s mantle.

Milliken and Li aren't the first scientists to notice water in lunar rocks. In 2008, volcanic materials collected from the Moon during the Apollo missions of 1971 and 1972 were revealed to contain the same water-flecked glass beads that the Brown scientists made the basis of their recent study. They took their research further by analyzing images captured across the face of the Moon and quickly saw the Apollo rocks represented a larger trend. "The distribution of these water-rich deposits is the key thing," Milliken said in a press statement. "They're spread across the surface, which tells us that the water found in the Apollo samples isn't a one-off. Lunar pyroclastics seem to be universally water-rich, which suggests the same may be true of the mantle."

The study challenges what we know about the Moon's formation, which scientists think occurred when a planet-sized object slammed into the Earth 4.5 billion years ago. "The growing evidence for water inside the Moon suggests that water did somehow survive, or that it was brought in shortly after the impact by asteroids or comets before the Moon had completely solidified," Li said. "The exact origin of water in the lunar interior is still a big question."

The findings also hold exciting possibilities for the future of space travel. NASA scientists have already considered turning the Moon into a water station for astronauts on their way to Mars. If water on the celestial body is really as abundant as the evidence may suggest, figuring out how to access that resource will definitely be on NASA's agenda.

[h/t CNN]


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