Have you ever wondered exactly how we know what we do about medicine? Ever thought about what medical experiments people did to themselves to learn the things we take for granted today? Well, try as you might, history is here to prove that truth really is stranger than fiction, and life in the past could be a painful and horrifying experience for those striving to make significant medical advances. Kudos to the brave men and women who experimented on themselves to give us medical insights and treatments.
Past medical treatments were so terrifying that it makes sense that people would do anything to find better ones, including pursuing some "miracle cures" that proved far more harmful—like radium-laced everything, which was all the rage at the turn of the 20th century—than they were helpful. Thankfully for the human race, not all these trailblazing experimenters used patients as guinea pigs; some of them went above and beyond, using their own bodies as living petri dishes and contracting self-inflicted medical conditions for the good of all humankind.
Nathaniel Kleitman made his name as a sleep scholar. It is because of him and his mid-20th-century experimentation that we know about REM sleep and circadian rhythms. Kleitman loved a good self-experiment. He once tested sleep deprivation by forcing himself to stay awake for 115 hours. At one point, deep in hallucination, he suddenly said: “It is because they are against the system." When asked why he said it, he responded that he believed himself to be having a conversation about labor unions.
In 1938, Kleitman spent 32 days in a light-less cave in order to study the body clock. He hoped that in a constant temperature and light level, his body clock could be retrained to work to a 28-hour rather than 24-hour day. Despite 32 days in the dark, he determined that his body clock was un-trainable. His assistant, however, successfully managed to reset his own body clock, so at least a month in a cave was not a total waste.
Spinal anesthesia is one thing you absolutely do not want to get wrong. Now, imagine being the first person to try it. August Bier was that man. In 1898, he developed a method whereby he injected cocaine into the cerebrospinal fluid within the spine. Having tried it on six patients who later complained of many painful side effects, Bier decided to try out the procedure on himself.
Bier had an assistant attempt inject anesthesia into his spine, only for the procedure to go wrong, leaving him with a hole in his neck that was leaking cerebrospinal fluid. Unperturbed, Bier simply turned around, and the brave assistant stood in as guinea pig. Now, perhaps August was not so sanguine as he had seemed: when the anesthesia took effect, he tested its strength by kicking his assistant in the shins, burning him with cigars, and striking him in sensitive areas. The successfully anesthetized assistant did not feel a thing.
For a very long time, the cause of stomach ulcers was believed to be lifestyle factors such as stress and coffee. Australian phsyiologist Barry Marshall had a different idea: he believed they were caused by the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, and in the 1980s, he set out to prove it.
Without telling even his wife, Marshall downed the bacteria and waited. After three days, he began vomiting and had what his wife called "putrid" breath. After two weeks, a biopsy confirmed that the bacteria had infected his stomach, and he had gastritis, which can lead to ulcers. Another successful self-experimentation for the ages. No doubt the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine he and his partner won in 2005 soothed some of the pain.
Frederic Hoelzel basically treated his stomach like a garbage can. As an extreme weight loss technique, he would eat items not ordinarily considered food, including sawdust, cotton, feathers, cork—anything non-caloric that would fill him but not actually nourish him. He later put this ability to use in the 1920s when studying the rate of ingestion of unusual substances, testing how quickly they would pass through his system.
Hoelzel learned that gravel took 52 hours to travel through his intestines, steel ball bearings took 80 hours, and gold pellets took an extraordinary 22 days. The shortest time was for a piece of twine, which only took a measly hour-and-a-half. However, this mania for eating the inedible left Hoelzel extremely thin and malnourished, so don’t go racing for the hardware store diet just yet.