Rocket-powered Air Force
physician John Stapp performed tests in the 40s
and 50s on humans' ability to withstand an impact,
landing himself on the cover of Time... and
United States Air Force
Dr James Kennedy held up a glass
of 5-aminolevulinic acid, the skin cancer drug he'd
been testing on mice in his lab at Queen's University.
He was frustrated. The mice weren't responding to the
treatment. "It should have worked. But it didn't."
He decided to take a sip.
"It tasted like lemon juice," he
recalls. Then he checked to see what would happen if
he poured some on his skin. No scarring. He injected
some under his skin. No pain. Next test: his face. "I
have a beard and I tried it on the left side of my face.
I got some skin reactions, but I pulled on my beard
every few days and nothing fell out."
This was far from the first time
Dr Kennedy dabbled in self experimentation. Before that,
he used to test each batch of Bacille Calmette-Guérin,
the tuberculosis vaccine, on himself before he used
it in an experiment, to make sure it was active. "Sometimes
it propagates through the body and triggers cancer,
but that's rare. Occasionally I got the injection a
little too deep and it went systemic on me," he says,
but nothing worse than some flu symptoms ever came of
it, he insists.
His colleagues seemed worried but
tolerated the acid experiments. "They figured I was
crazy anyways," he explains.
Dr Kennedy decided it would be
better not to tell his wife or kids about his little
experiments. "They might have worried about it," he
says, in something of an understatement.
Sipping 5-aminolevulinic acid sounds like the beginning
of a new Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde adaptation or
the basis of a Spiderman villain, but this is
actually how Dr Kennedy went about studying the drug,
called ALA for short. "It's handy to have your experimental
animal with you at all times," he says. "Anytime you
want to do an experiment, it's available."
In a matter of days, Dr Kennedy's
understanding of the substance's effects on humans
specifically, himself had advanced by leaps and
ALA was completely safe, he concluded,
and he managed to wrangle an essentially unlimited ethics
approval from Queen's to start clinical trials. In 1999,
ALA was approved in the United States, becoming the
first light-activated drug ever available to treat precancerous
actinic keratoses. Since then, over 300,000 people have
been treated with ALA and Dr Kennedy has won two major
With that, Dr Kennedy joined the
illustrious, centuries-old and often off-kilter ranks
of self experimenting physicians. (See "Self experimentation's
checkered past," below for more.)
Doctors have been performing experiments on themselves
- n of 1 trials - for a long, long time. Some have died;
others have been wildly successful and earned Nobel
In the early 50s, Dr John Sutherland
and a senior colleague at Tufts University in Boston
had a patient who they suspected of having hemolytic
anemia. To see if they were right, Dr Sutherland injected
a pint of the patient's type O blood into his own type
A. "Then every few days, I would take a sample of my
blood and mix it with anti-A serum," he says. "That
would coagulate all my red blood cells and those still
loose would be the patient's, and I could graph the
course of the patient's blood in my system." The doctors
determined that the blood was fine and they diagnosed
the patient with an overactive spleen. Dr Sutherland
contracted a low-grade fever that cleared up within
a week or so.
"Yes, it is dangerous," he admits.
"There is no way we would do an experiment like that
now, giving blood from somebody with an unknown disorder.
And the other disadvantage it is a series of one case."
But he firmly believed, and still does, that self experimentation
is a heroic act.
Dr Sutherland later co-wrote a
book, If I Die In The Service of Science, named
after a famous self experiment on hygiene in 19th century
Germany by a physician named Max von Pettenkofer.
Just before he gulped down a flask
full of cholera, Dr von Pettenkofer had told his students,
"Even if I be mistaken and this experiment that I am
making imperils my life, I shall look death quietly
in the face, for what I am doing is no frivolous or
cowardly act of suicide, but I shall die in the service
of science as a soldier perishes on the field of honour."
He survived the experiment.
Self experimentation's checkered
Sigmund Freud & Karl
Sigmund Freud tested dream interpretation
and cocaine on himself. Unfortunately for
Dr Freud, however, he was on vacation in 1884
when his coke-snorting pal, the ophthalmology
intern Karl "Coca" Koller, made the discovery
(testing it on a patient this time) that cocaine
could be used as a local anesthetic in eye surgery.
Dr Lazear, a US physician during the Spanish-American
War, became convinced that yellow fever, which
was decimating American forces, was spread by
mosquitoes, not poor sanitation. In late August
1900, Dr Lazear got some infected mosquitoes,
rolled up his sleeze and let them have a go at
him. His theory was right: he died a few weeks
Canada can lay claim to its own Nobel-winning,
self experimenting physician: Frederick Banting.
The man who discovered insulin (which he tested
on himself) also decided to find out what mustard
gas burns felt like, and was saved from near death
inside a decompression chamber of his own design
when his laboratory staff refused to follow his
instructions to keep reducing the pressure.
In 1929, German surgeon Werner Forssman became
the first person to perform a cardiac catheterization.
The department chief told him not to do it; Dr
Forssman ignored him. A nurse tried to stop him;
he tied her to the operating table to keep her
out of the way. Then he opened a vein in his arm,
stuck in a urethral catheter and stood in front
of a fluoroscopy screen to guide it into the right
atrium of his heart. Then he sauntered upstairs
to the X-ray department and took the image that
revolutionized cardiology. Despite later joining
the Nazi party, Dr Forssman was awarded the 1956
Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
Few people realize that Murphy's Law originated
during an extraordinary series of self experiments
conducted in the 1940s and 50s in the California
desert. While studying Air Force records, Dr John
Stapp (pictured above) realized that simple, everyday
car accidents not plane crashes
were responsible for a huge proportion of pilots'
deaths. Dr Stapp decided to test the limits of
humans' ability to withstand an impact to demonstrate
the need for proper restraints in airplanes and
in cars. One of the tests, in 1954, in which Dr
Stapp, "the fastest man on earth," rode a rocket-powered
sled from zero to 1,019 km/h in five seconds and
then came to complete stop in 1.4 seconds, temporarily
blinded him due to retinal hemorrhages, broke
both of his wrists and caused other injuries.
In an earlier test, an engineer named Edward Murphy
managed to install both of the two sensors incorrectly,
rendering the data useless. "If there are two
or more ways to do something and one of those
results in a catastrophe, then someone will do
it that way," Captain Murphy declared after seeing
Dr Stapp emerge from the sled bloodied and hurt,
spawning his famous law.
Barry Marshall & Robin
The two Australian physician-researchers shared
the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
for their research that proved the bacteria Helicobacter
pylori caused stomach ulcers. In 1984, after
failing to see results in animal tests, Dr Marshall
decided to try it out on himself. He didn't tell
the hospital ethics committee, nor his wife. "She
was already convinced about the risk of these
bacteria and I knew I would never get her approval,"
he wrote. "This was one of those occasions when
it would be easier to get forgiveness than permission."
The experiment was a success, so to speak: Dr
Marshall fell ill and changed the world's understanding
of the causes of gastric ulcers. And his wife