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Physician, try it out on thyself

April 03, 2006|Elena Conis

Medical researchers have countless tools and techniques for studying disease -- epidemiology, clinical trials, lab tests, CAT scans. But throughout the history of medicine, many have resorted to a little-publicized method: self-experimentation.

-- Elena Conis

These do-it-yourselfers inject themselves with untested vaccines, perform surgery on their own bodies, remove nutrients from their diets and swallow live bacteria and viruses. They've suffered syphilis, ulcers and pain in their quests for cures, anesthetics and surgical techniques.

The ever-curious surgeon to 18th century English royalty, John Hunter, may be one of the earliest self-experimenters on record. Hunter, many scholars say, injected himself with pus from a gonorrhea patient, hoping to study the disease at close range.

He contracted the disease, as well as syphilis (the unfortunate doctor's patient probably had both diseases). After more than a dozen years of mercury rubs and other unproven remedies, the syphilis fatally attacked Hunter's heart. He remains known for his contributions to anatomical science -- but not, unfortunately, to the study of STDs.

Self-experimentation went badly for others too. Convinced that swallowing cholera bacteria would be a harmless undertaking, German chemist Max von Pettenkofer guzzled a concoction of the organisms in the mid-1800s. He was proved wrong when he came down with the diarrheal disease -- though he did recover.

U.S. Army physician Jesse Lazear was not so lucky. Working in Cuba in 1900, he intentionally subjected himself to the bite of a yellow-fever carrying mosquito. The experiment was fatal -- but it helped to prove that the disease that had killed so many soldiers during the Spanish American War was transmitted by a bug bite.

Other self-experiments were unpalatable, if not deadly. In 1916, Dr. Joseph Goldberger drew blood, scraped scabs and collected feces from patients at a South Carolina pellagra hospital. His aim: to prove to a doubting medical community that deadly pellagra was not contagious. His method: to inject himself, his apparently devoted wife and several colleagues with the affected blood and to feed them the scabs and feces.

The experiment was effective: None of the subjects came down with much more than an upset stomach. And Goldberger proved that pellagra was simply the result of a diet lacking niacin, a type of vitamin B.

Self-testing has proved some of the basic tenets of modern medicine as well. At the time of Barry Marshall's self-experiment in 1984, the medical establishment was certain that stress and diet caused ulcers. The Australian doctor was certain a spiral-shaped bacterium was to blame. When animal testing failed to prove his theory, Marshall fixed himself a cup of bacterial broth. The drink produced all the right symptoms -- as well as a colony of the bacterial culprit, Helicobacter pylori, in his stomach.

Twenty years later, Marshall received a coveted call: His bacterial brew had won him the 2005 Nobel Prize in medicine.

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