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10 Scientists who Experimented on Themselves

Anuya Waghmare Oct 19, 2020
It takes enormous courage for a person to try something on himself or herself without knowing the consequences of the experiment. Scientists have always surprised us with such acts that are sometimes heroic, and at other times they are just insane. This article lists some of these scientists who experimented on themselves, and were their own guinea pigs.

Did you know?

Dr. Werner Forssmann faced strict disciplinary action for self-experimentation, when he inserted a catheter or tube into his arm and pushed it all the way to his heart.
Throughout history, many scientists have experimented on themselves to prove their point to the world. This idea was dangerous as it required enough courage to inflict pain on one's body. In spite of this, they took the challenge of testing their theories on themselves, as a way to accurately describe the results of their hypotheses.
This paved the way for many great inventions, breakthroughs, and scientific advances. Given below is the list of 10 scientists who made extraordinary advances in the field of science by putting their lives in danger.

Pierre Curie and Marie Curie

Known for: Theory of Radioactivity and discovery of polonium and radium.
This husband-wife duo are known for their theory of radioactivity and the discovery of the radioactive elements polonium and radium. To know and confirm the effects of radiation on the human body, Marie and Pierre Curie experimented on themselves.
Pierre Curie often carried a sample of radium in his pocket while Marie Curie liked to have radium salt by her bedside that illuminated in the dark. They were exposed to the harmful effects of radiation while trying to isolate the radioactive elements polonium and radium from pitchblende ore.
They processed tons of the ore to obtain small amounts of radium. Pierre Curie bound a sample of radium to his arm for 10 hours in order to study its effects on human health. Their constant exposure to radiation had detrimental effects on their health.
Their hands were scarred, cracked, and appeared burnt. They were always tired, ill, and in pain. Marie Curie contacted leukemia in the later stages of her life, which led to her death in 1934. This is thought to have been caused from overexposure to radiation.
The Curies, along with Henri Becquerel, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903. Their research in radioactivity pioneered the use of radiation to treat medical maladies like cancer.

Sir Humphry Davy

Known for: Discovery of Laughing gas and its effects, among others.
Sir Humphry Davy was a British chemist, who discovered many alkali and alkaline earth metals like sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, etc. He gave chlorine its current name and also confirmed it to be an element. He also discovered the elemental nature of iodine.
Sir Humphry Davy studied the oxides of nitrogen, which led him to discover nitrous oxide or laughing gas and its anesthetic properties on the human body. He inhaled sixteen quarts of laughing gas for about 7 minutes, and described its effects to be anesthetic and intoxicating.
This frequent poisoning had ill effects on his health. A nitrogen trichloride explosion permanently damaged his eyesight, after which he hired Michael Faraday as a coworker. Humphry Davy was knighted in 1812, and also served as President of the Royal Society for many years.
The discovery of nitrous oxide or laughing gas has led to its use as a sedative in dental procedures. It is because of this we can endure and laugh off the pain during minor dental surgeries.

Michael Faraday

Known for: Electromagnetism and Faraday's laws of electrolysis, among others.
Michael Faraday enhanced the work of Sir Humphry Davy. He was involved in the study of chlorine and the synthesis of compounds made from carbon and chlorine, namely C2Cl6 and C2Cl4. He also discovered benzene and a process to liquidize gases.
The greatest contribution of Michael Faraday is in the field of electromagnetism. He is also credited for the discovery of electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism, construction of the electric dynamo, and the Faraday's laws of electrolysis. In order to study electrolysis, he had to pass electric current through salt solutions.
Faraday was exposed to the poisonous fumes emitted during his experiments, which inflicted damage to his body, leading to chemical poisoning. Like Sir Humphry Davy, he also damaged his eyes in a nitrogen trichloride explosion.
However, his work opened up new avenues in the field of electromagnetism and electrochemistry, and inspired many other scientists, paving the way for new discoveries and developments in the scientific arena.

Carl Wilhelm Scheele

Known for: Discovery of oxygen, molybdenum, tungsten and chlorine, among others.
Carl Wilhelm Scheele identified molybdenum, tungsten, barium, hydrogen, and chlorine before Humphry Davy. He is argued to be the first to discover many chemical compounds like citric acid, lactic acid, glycerol, hydrogen fluoride, hydrogen cyanide, and hydrogen sulfide. He tasted hydrogen cyanide and even described its taste.
Carl Scheele was exposed to hazardous compounds and toxic gases that were emitted during his experiments. He inhaled and sampled any new substance that he discovered. This exposure to deadly poisons took a toll on his health, that led to his untimely death in 1786.

Albert Hofmann

Known for: Synthesis of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and its effects
Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist, was the first person to synthesize, ingest, and study the effects of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), a hallucinogen. In order to study and describe the effects of this hallucinogen, he ingested 250 micro grams of LSD-25.
After sometime, he experienced sudden changes in his perception and began to feel dizzy. He then asked his assistant to escort him home. On his bicycle ride back home, he witnessed a whole new hallucinogenic world that he described later.
He wrote, "I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors."
Hofmann was a member of the Nobel Prize committee for several years. He continued his work on LSD, its derivatives, and other hallucinogenic substances until his death in 2008. His work introduced LSD in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, setting the foundation for further research in LSD.

Karl Landsteiner

Known for: Classification of human blood types and discovery of Rh factor.
Landsteiner, an Austrian physician, is known for the development of the blood group system. He used samples of his own blood and also collected other blood samples to discover the different blood types.
He used the samples to show that different antigens are present in human blood that attack and coagulate the blood cells in the transfused blood. Due to this, the body rejects a blood transfusion.
Through his self-experimentation, Landsteiner was successful in identifying different blood groups, that opened up a new era of successful blood transfusions between persons with the same blood group, which continues to save lives even today. He also identified the Rhesus factor that allows blood transfusion in patients, without putting lives in danger.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1930 for identifying the blood types A, B, O, and AB.

Jonas Salk

Known For: Discovery of the polio vaccine.
Jonas Salk was an altruist who worked towards the betterment of mankind. He is best remembered for the discovery of the first successful polio vaccine. To prove that his vaccine works, Jonas Salk conducted the first human trials on himself and his family.
He refused to patent his vaccine, and therefore never received any financial aid or compensation for the same.

Dr. Barry Marshall

Known for: Determining the cause of stomach ulcer.
Dr. Barry Marshall and pathologist Robin Warren believed that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori causes stomach ulcers, and antibiotics can cure them. However, the medical fraternity believed that stomach ulcers were caused by lifestyle factors, like stress, or eating spicy food.
To prove their hypothesis, Dr. Marshall self-volunteered for the trial and ingested the bacteria culture. After 3 days, he developed nausea and vomiting and had a stale breath. A biopsy taken 10 days later confirmed he had gastritis, which can lead to ulcers.
Their research proved their hypothesis that the causative agent of stomach ulcers is indeed Helicobacter pylori. They were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2005 for their work.

Dr. Werner Forssmann

Known for: Research in heart catheterization.
Dr. Werner Forssmann was a German physician. While he was still an intern, Dr. Werner hypothesized a method of heart catheterization. He inserted a catheter into a vein in his anesthetized arm and pushed it 60 centimeters inside his body till it reached his heart. He then took an X-ray to show the position of the catheter.
Dr. Forssmann's self-experiment was excoriated and disapproved. His approach was severely criticized and the controversy that arose as a result of his action forced him to give up his cardiology internship and pursue urology.
He was later awarded the Nobel Prize in 1956 for developing a procedure for cardiac catheterization, nearly two decades after his self-experiment.

Dr. Allan Walker Blair

Known for: Studying the effects of the bite of the female black widow spider.
Dr. Allan Walker Blair, a professor at the University of Alabama, intentionally let a female black widow spider bite his index finger for 10 seconds. He did this as a part of an experiment to study the effects of the sting of the spider on humans.
The most bizarre part is, he already knew the effects of the experiment, which was conducted by another entomologist, William Baerg, in 1921. The only difference in both the experiments was the duration of the bite, which was twice as long in Dr. Blair's experiment.
The effects were instant, and within minutes he felt severe muscle cramps and difficulty in breathing. He was squirming on the floor while sweating copiously, and had to be rushed to the hospital. He suffered gravely for about a week.
Later, he experienced a itching sensation all over his skin for several weeks. He endured and went through all this to conclude that the bite of the female black widow spider is extremely dangerous and poisonous, which was a fact known at that time.
These were a few great scientists and researchers who self-experimented to prove their theories. Their contributions and experiments certainly opened up new vistas that led to many important discoveries and inventions.