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Historical Scientific Tradition

Modern science didn’t come as far as it has simply by mixing chemicals or biological agents in test tubes and injecting them into monkeys. The long-standing scientific tradition of self-experimentation has also played a large part.

Exactly like it sounds, self-experimentation involves a scientific researcher using himself as the subject of an experiment.  These types of experiments offer scientists absolute control over an experiment and the results often prove to be more definitive than using another subject.  Historically, everyone from Nobel Prize winners and college professors to college and high school students have practiced self-experimentation.  Of course, such experimentation often straddles the line between rigorous scientific testing and proper ethics.  Self-experimentation is often thought of as a sort of “bravado science” where the researcher is possibly seeking a result as much for the advancement of science as guts and glory.  In fact, there are many scientists who have been “killed in action” while poking, prodding, injecting and doing who-knows-what else to themselves.

Tusker Trail Kilimanjaro ClimbThe fact is self-experimentation is really something that all humans are familiar with.  To varying degrees, from our diet and health to our physical and mental limitations, most of us are on a constant journey to figure out what makes us tick and how we can alter or improve ourselves.  Humans have an innate curiosity and an ego that makes us push ourselves to be our best.  In popular culture, we are well aware of the performance artists, extreme athletes and other entertainers who take themselves to extreme places, often simply in order to demonstrate what is humanly possible.  Tusker Trail trekkers also possess this drive and mindset, arriving at Kilimanjaro and other challenging locales ready to experiment with their bodies and minds and push themselves beyond the perceived limit.

Similarly, scientists are constantly trying to discover what is possible in regards to the human body and mind.  In their case, results of experimentation have the potential to make life better for everyone, and possibly worse for themselves.

Strange Sensations

To speak of self-experimentation and not mention early 20th century London physician and neurologist Sir Henry Head, would be a disservice to science as a whole.  Head, a rather meek and bespectacled fellow, shocked the entire medical community when he boldly turned his surgical instruments on himself.

In order to compile data for an article he entitled “A Human Experiment in Nerve Division”, Head operated on his own arm to understand how sensations in peripheral nerves change once they are cut.  From there, he moved on to other parts of the body and created a detailed map – which scientists still consult today – of areas responsible for sensation.  At one point during his experimentation, Head famously dipped certain body parts in scalding hot water to investigate the nerves.  His findings on the effects of temperature and pain proved to be groundbreaking.  Not surprisingly, Head was a complex man who straddled a range of personalities, from critical scientist to emotional artist.  He cared much about humanity and suffering and his particular interest in sensations was in great part due to patients he had seen who were in great pain.

Head is perhaps one of the most important scientists in the self-experimentation realm, and many great scientists have followed in his footsteps.

More Research Daredevils

Most experienced naturalists who spend time in the wilderness are well aware of the dangers of wildlife attacks.  As a result, they take great precautions to protect themselves.  Not Austrian-born cancer survivor, mother and wolf tracker Gudrun Pfleuger.  On one of her many ventures into the wild, she was spotted by a pack of hungry wolves.  Did she turn the other way?  Of course not.  In the name of research, she lay down and waited for them to approach – just to see what would happen.  It turned out the wolves were so trusting of her that they nearly let her touch them.

John Stapp, a U.S. Air Force flight surgeon, often referred to as the “fastest man on Earth”, got his nickname by offering himself up to experiments on rockets sleds that assessed the most extreme deceleration speeds a human could handle.  As a result, he suffered countless broken bones, a detached retina and numerous other painful injuries.  Australian gastroenterologist Barry Marshall developed a theory that most stomach ulcers are caused by the bacteria, Helicobacter pylori.  With little hesitation, Marshall whipped up a potent cocktail of the bacteria and downed it.  Within a few days he was experiencing the joys of a gastric ulcer.  Russian scientists Anatoli Bugorski had an intentional close encounter with a U-70 synchrotron – a powerful particle accelerator a.k.a. “atom smasher”.  After sticking his head into the device and getting “smashed” with a beam of protons, he saw a flash “brighter than a thousand suns.”   Somehow he managed to survive the incident, but not without the occasional, nagging seizure.  Edward Harrison, the chemist who invented the gas mask, would seal himself in chambers with poisonous gas to test and perfect his designs.  Though his work eventually saved countess lives, the trials took their toll on his health and eventually contributed to his death.

Perhaps what is most spectacular about many of the brave and quite possibly crazy individuals who have experimented on themselves is that often there was no ability to properly gauge the level of risk they took.  They went places that no one had been before in order to make a new contribution to the world of science.

Breaking New Ground

While some have frowned upon self-experimentation, others in the science community and outside of it have suggested that researchers should be willing to take a spoonful of their own medicine if that is what they expect of others.  Beyond such morals, codes and rules, self-experimentation has been responsible for breaking new scientific ground and it has inspired modern scientists to think how putting themselves in the scientific equation can benefit their research and humankind as a whole.

To this day, self-experimentation remains an important and viable aspect of science.  Not long ago, Pradeep Seth, an Indian microbiologist, injected himself with a vaccine he had developed for HIV patients – it had never before been tested on humans.  Many in the medical community condemned his actions, but he stands behind his decision, firmly stating “There is always a place for self-experiment in science.”