James Le Fanu

‘For every problem there is a solution: neat, plausible and wrong’. H.L.Mencken

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Just how far would you go for science?

Dr James Le Fanu salutes the brave efforts of the self-experimenters.

NO MATTER how exotic the location or worthy the subject, international medical conferences are invariably of a mind-numbing tediousness. To liven things up during a meeting on impotence a few years ago, one participant walked round to the front of the podium, dropped his trousers and injected a new drug directly into to his limp organ. The audience, it is reported, greeted the robust erection this produced with a prolonged round of applause. Unusual as this behaviour might appear, it follows a long and heroic tradition in which doctors and scientists have put their theories to the test by experimenting on themselves.

This year marks the centenary of the birth of one of the great self-experimenters – J. B. S. Haldane. Concerned about the problem of excessive heat in the mines, he observed the physiological effects on himself of remaining fully clothed in a room heated to 150. Fahrenheit.

Investigating the effects of cold on divers, he spent hours in a pressure chamber immersed in a pool of freezing water. In a related experiment, looking for ways of preventing ‘the bends’, his spinal cord was injured by a bubble of inhaled helium, which produced persistent pain in his lower back and down both legs. For Haldane, the ‘ideal way of dying’ would be as a result of investigating how diseases were transmitted.

This was indeed the fate of John Hunter, surgeon to George III and the most celebrated anatomist of his day. He sought to resolve the burning issue of his time – whether gonorrhoea and syphilis were the same thing or two different diseases – by inoculating himself with the pus of a victim of venereal disease.

Regrettably, this brave experiment only added to the confusion because, unknown to Hunter, the patient from whom he obtained the specimen was suffering from both diseases. So, after developing the signs of a gonorrhoeal infection, 10 days later there appeared the typical sore of primary syphilis. His autopsy at the age of 65 revealed the syphilitic infection had progressed to cause a ballooning dilation of the main blood vessel in his chest – the aorta. Hunter’s heroic self-sacrifice was followed by many others. While studying how yellow fever might be transmitted, Dr Stubbins Ffirth injected the black vomit of sufferer directly into his veins; Dr Max von Pettenkoffer swallowed a cup of bouillon laced with cholera bacilli to prove his (mistaken) theory that the cholera organism alone was not sufficient to cause death from the disease.

Seventy years before the discovery of antibiotics, Dr Carl Garre demonstrated the pathogenicity of the bacterium Staphylococcus by scratching his skin with a platinum wire contaminated by the organism. This resulted in a large, painful carbuncle and an almost fatal episode of septicaemia.

The tradition of self-experimentation has continued to the present day. Ten years ago an Australian, Dr Barry Marshall, drank a cocktail containing the organism Campylobacter Pyloridis and rapidly developed the symptoms of gastritis – abdominal discomfort, nausea and halitosis. A colleague then passed an endoscope down his throat, which showed his stomach wall was absolutely teeming with the bugs. Both gastritis and peptic ulcers, Dr Marshall concluded, were not just due to excess acid but were actually infectious diseases. He predicted, and was subsequently proved right, that peptic ulcers could be prevented from relapsing with large doses of antibiotics.

To self-experimenters we owe our understanding of the nature of many infectious diseases, their incubation periods and how they are spread.

Surgery would be inconceivable without the anaesthetic gases developed by doctors experimenting on themselves. If Dr Werner Forsmann had not passed a tube into his own heart in 1929, we would never have had open-heart surgery.

If Dr G. S. Brindley had not injected his penis hundreds of times with different drugs, the best treatment we have for male impotence would never have been discovered.

Heroic as these self-experimenters undoubtedly were, the discomforts and misery they inflicted on themselves must have been compensated by the sheer exhilaration of furthering the cause of scientific truth. Dr Gail Dack, a strong believer (amid general scepticism) that a bacterial toxin could cause food poisoning, fed himself a suspicious piece of sponge cake. A couple of hours later he rushed to the bathroom where, between paroxysms of vomiting and diarrhoea, his wife overheard him muttering: ‘Oh, this is wonderful.’

Copyright: Telegraph Group Ltd