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.
Stubbins Ffirth was a man not only with an excellent name, but also with a mission. When writing his medical thesis in 1802, Ffirth developed a theory that yellow fever was not contagious. Now, we may know that yellow fever is spread by mosquitoes or blood, but in 1802, yellow fever was considered highly contagious, and people believed even a victims' bedding could transmit the disease.
Ffirth disagreed, so, in order to prove his theory, he underwent some of the most revolting self-experimentation in the history of medicine. When lying in bed with victims and breathing in their breath failed to infect him, Ffirth stepped it up a notch.
He took the black vomit that was a symptom of the disease and rubbed it into open wounds he cut into his forearms. He also rubbed black vomit into his eye. When this didn't work, he took black vomit straight from the patient and swallowed it. Then, he turned the stuff into a pill and swallowed that.
Despite all of these truly disgusting experiments, he did not get infected, and he felt this proved he was entirely right in his theory—if not, necessarily, his mind.
The history of understanding pain is a long and excruciating one. To truly understand how something feels, self-experimenters have been hurting themselves in elaborate ways for centuries. British doctors and researchers Jonas Kellgren and Sir Thomas Lewis thoroughly documented their methods in the 1930s. Over a period of a year, they injected themselves over a thousand times with painful chemicals, testing muscles, tendons, cartilage, and bones to study exactly how their pain behaved.
Not content with painful injections, Kellgren decided to find out just how pain was felt within bone. After anesthetizing the skin and bone covering, Kellgren had a metal wire driven through his tibia. It turns out that, although the hard bone itself feels no pain, the spongy interior of our bones truly, absolutely do. Kellgren explained:
"While the wire was passing through the compact bone I experienced a sensation of vibration and pressure but no pain... but when the wire entered the soft cancellous [spongy] bone, diffuse pain was added to the sensation of vibration."
Despite all their aches and pain, these two carried on, and medicine is still informed by many of their discoveries.
At the end of the 19th century, cholera was a serious public health concern. Transmitted by unsafe water and food contaminated with human waste in cities where sanitation was poor, cholera outbreaks were common and deadly. Thankfully, along came Max Josef von Pettenkofer and his certainty that the bacterium that causes cholera was not enough on its own to cause the disease.
Pettenkofer believed that being unhygienic was an important factor in contracting cholera, and that someone who was clean would not fall ill upon ingesting the bacteria. He was so certain that, in 1892, he harvested the bacterium and drank down a nice big cup of it.
In a twist anyone could see coming, Pettenkofer got sick. However, the bout of cholera he experienced was quite mild, and, because of that, Pettenkofer believed that he had been proven correct. To be fair to the man, he was definitely onto something with his “be cleaner / don’t drink dirty water” idea. But, also: drinking cholera will still give you cholera.
Giovanni Grassi was an Italian doctor who worked in parasitology. When conducting an autopsy in 1878, he found the bowel of the corpse was filled with tapeworm eggs. Unlike normal folk who might have recoiled in horror, Grassi saw an opportunity to study the transmission of the tapeworm, and who better to test this on but himself?
After ascertaining that he himself was worm-free (by spending a full year checking his own poop), he swallowed the eggs (which, reminder, he found in the intestines of a corpse), and waited. Sure enough, a month later, Grassi started feeling intestinal discomfort and found worm eggs in his own feces. A-ha! He now knew the worm is transmitted via egg-infested feces, and his bowel was full of them. Truly a success to celebrate.