Science Channel - InSCIder

25 Apr

Doing Experiments on Yourself?


This Saturday at 10PM, Outrageous Acts of Science features people who've used themselves as guinea pigs as strange experiments -- including a man who volunteered to be tickled excessively, to the point where he appeared to pass out. As biologist Carin Bondar explains on the show, the subject appears to have suffered overstimulation of the vagus nerve, which can divert blood away from the brain and into the digestive system.

As unadvisable as this particular little stunt may seem, you might be surprised to know that bona fide scientists at times actually have performed much more dangerous experiments upon themselves. Back in 1933, for example, Dr. Allen Walker Blair an assistant professor at the University of Alabama school of medicine, became curious about the potency of the black widow spider's poisonous bite.

At the time, there were conflicting reports about whether the toxin was life-threatening, or only caused minor discomfort. Blair reportedly allowed a spider to bite the little finger of his left hand for 10 seconds, and then set about recording the results. According to a 1933 Time magazine article:

A sharp pain shot through his hand, quickly spread up to his shoulder. Violent abdominal cramps doubled him up. His blood pressure plummeted. Gasping with pain, Professor Blair insisted on having his heart action recorded on a cardiograph before he would take narcotics. Two days in a hospital gave him time to reflect on the "black widow's" virulency.

In a sense, though, Blair's experiment was successful, in that it yielded a definitive answer to the question. The effects of a black widow bite turned out to be similar to the symptoms of serious conditions such as a ruptured appendix, and extremely dangerous. But while Blair got a lot of notoriety for his daring research, there was a downside. According to this 1989 Tuscaloosa News article, he also ended up dying at the relatively young age  of 47, which some attribute to permanent damage to his heart caused by the black widow toxin. 

Plenty of other researchers have served as their own experimental subjects and risked their lives in the process, as this article from details. There was pioneering British neurologist Sir Henry Head, who in 1903, volunteered to have the radial nerve in his left arm severed and the two ends tied together, in an effort to see whether they would regenerate, and enable him to feel pain in his arm. (They did.) Czech monk-turned-physician Jan Purkinje deliberately ingested foxglove, a plant that slows the heart and can kill in large enough doses, so that he could describe its effects on vision. After Swiss chemist Dr. Albert Hofmann accidentally ingested LSD-25 in his lab in 1943 and discovered that it had mind-altering effects, he deliberately took a dose of 250 micrograms. On his bike ride home, Hofmann had a bizarre hallucinatory trip full of "extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors." Fortunately, he made it home alive. 

This Wall Street Journal article also mentions the case of Japanese pediatrician Shimesu Koino, who ate 2,000 eggs of an intestinal roundworm in order to study the life cycle of the organism firsthand. He became so severely ill that he began to cough up worms from his lungs. That article also cites two British doctors, Herbert Woollard and Edward Carmichael, who in the 1930s piled weights on their scrotums in order to study how the pain spread through their bodies. (They might not have gone through with it, if they'd have known that years later, a scientific journal would describe their painful work as "relatively informative."

While researchers talk about the "publish or perish" syndrome, it's mind-boggling to think of someone deliberately subjecting himself to severe pain and possibly grave injury, or even death, just to get an article into a scientific journal. But self-experimenters see themselves as performing a valuable service. Not only are they gathering difficult-to-obtain, often high-value information, but they're doing it without endangering other people. In Lawrence K. Altman's 1986 book Who Goes First? The Story of Self-Experimentation in Medicine, bacteriologist Dr. Stephen D. Elek offers this rationale for injecting himself with a highly dangerous bacteria: 

We had to do it on ourselves before we did it on others, because we were venturing into the unknown...If anything goes wrong and [an experimental subject] dies, and the experimenter has not done the experiment upon himself, he is liable for murder. It's as simple as that. A man is entitled to risk his own life. He is not entitled to risk somebody else's.

But others see a paradoxical problem with this sort of seeming nobility: By taking risks with their own lives, critics argue, researchers may become inured to the notion of risk, so that they're more willing to expose experimental subjects to it. Here's an article about a 2004 Harvard University panel discussion in which some of these criticisms were raised. I can't help but think of the 1980s cult flick Repo Man, in which a crazed scientist drives around with radioactive extraterrestrial corpses in his trunk, and explains to a passenger: "Everybody could stand 100 chest x-rays a year. They ought to have them, too."

So what do you think about scientific self-experimentation? Express your opinion below.

Image Credit: Jono Smith


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