10 Scientists Who Experimented on Themselves

10 Scientists Who Experimented on Themselves

For centuries, curious men and women have subjected themselves to their own experiments, all in the name of science. When others failed to believe in them, these scientists decided to put their lives on the line and become guinea pigs, so that they could prove that their findings can in fact save lives. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the field of psychology and medicine was only just advancing. Doctors and engineers believed that the best test subjects or reliable witnesses would be themselves. So, many men and women conducted experiments on themselves to not only succeed with their findings, but to make our lives better. Here, we are listing some of those scientists, who took a chance and experimented on themselves; all in the name of science.




1. Dr. Barry J. Marshall was convinced that H. pylori bacteria causes stomach ulcers, however, no one believed him. Since human trials were illegal at the time, the only test subject he could find was himself. So, in 1984, he drank a broth containing H. pylori bacteria, developed ulcers within days, and then treated them with antibiotics.

Dr. Barry J. Marshall, scientists, facts, life, people, amazing, medicine, health
Image: Zina Deretsky/NSF/Wikimedia

During the late 1900’s, the medical elite thought that they knew what caused ulcers and stomach cancer, objecting to anyone who tried to prove them wrong. But they were indeed wrong. For years, Dr. Barry J. Marshall saw patients suffering from ulcers and sometimes, losing their lives. He knew that there was a simple treatment for ulcers and was determined to find it. So, in 1981, he started working with a team of experts, hoping to find a cure. As he progressed throughout his research, he made the alarming discovery that a corkscrew-shaped bacteria called Helicobacter pylori was not only causing ulcers, but also stomach cancer.

The cure, he realized, was readily available: anti­biotics. However, gastroenterologists were dismissive of his findings. Since it was prohibited to test it on human subjects and prove his findings, Dr. Marshall did the only plausible thing. He took some H. pylori from the gut of an ailing patient, stirred it into a broth, and drank it. Within days, he developed gastritis, the precursor to an ulcer and fell ill. Dr. Marshall then went to his lab, biopsied his own gut, culturing H. pylori and proving unequivocally that bacteria were the underlying cause of ulcers. He then took antibiotics and recovered. (source)

2. Jonas Salk discovered a potential vaccine for polio. When health human test subjects were required, Salk volunteered himself and his entire family for a vaccine trial. It paid off and anti-polio antibodies were discovered in all of them.

Jonas Salk, scientists, facts, doctor, life, people, weird, history
Image: Wikimedia/Pixabay

During his research at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, Dr. Jonas Salk found a potential vaccine for polio. However, there were no test subjects available who were healthy. After the vaccine was administered, the subject had to be studied and changes had to be recorded. For this, they wanted someone who was willing to try the untested vaccine for the first time. A determined Salk volunteered to be that person. He also volunteered his entire family for the vaccine trial, since he was sure of his findings.

His efforts paid off, as all of the subjects tested positive for anti-polio antibodies. Jonas Salk also refused to patent the vaccine, since he wanted to make sure that everyone could afford it and never ever received any form of financial compensation for his discovery. When Edward R. Murrow asked Salk who owned the patent on the vaccine, Salk responded with one of his most famous quotes: “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”. For those who want a short answer, Salk would have been richer by $7 billion if his vaccine were patented. (source)

3. When Ralph Steinman was given less than 5% chance of surviving for more than a year, he volunteered to become a test subject in an effort to find a cure for cancer.

Ralph Steinman, doctor, scientists, life, people, history, Nobel Prize, facts
Image: Wikimedia/Pixabay

Ralph Steinman named the dendritic cells that activate immune cells in order to help the body overcome infections. The ability to manipulate dendritic cells would help cancer researchers design treatments in an efficient way to combat “camouflaged” cancer cells that go unnoticed by the immune system. Steinman knew that it would be decades before it was successfully eradicated but when doctors diagnosed him with pancreatic cancer in 2007, he saw it as an opportunity.

Steinman was given less than a 5% chance of surviving for more than a year but that did not stop the brilliant man from moving forward. Taking it as an opportunity to study the cells, he volunteered to become a test subject, asking colleagues and collaborators to help him continue his work. Based on his research, Steinman was given three different vaccines and a total of eight experimental therapies as well as chemotherapy. Steinman did eventually succumb to cancer but only after four and a half years, beating the odds his doctors gave him.

The Nobel Committee announcement that Steinman would be awarded the Nobel prize but were unaware that he passed away three days prior to the announcement. Since the committee was unaware of that fact and since the mistake had been honest, even though the rules of the prize state that it cannot be awarded to someone who has passed away, they awarded him with the Nobel Prize. (source)




4. James Carroll, Aristides Agramonte, and Jesse Lazear, highly trained US Army doctors, exposed themselves to mosquitoes infected with yellow fever virus to prove that mosquitoes were in fact the carriers of the disease.

James Carroll, Aristides Agramonte, and Jesse Lazear, American doctors, physicists, scientists, science, facts, life, people
Image: Wikimedia

Yellow fever is a tropical viral disease that affects the liver and kidneys, often proving fatal. In 1881, Carlos Finlay, a Cuban doctor and scientist, proposed the theory that the virus could be spreading rapidly throughout humans not because of contact with each other but rather through mosquitoes. Since many innocent lives were being lost to the disease, a team of highly trained doctors during the time, James Carroll, Aristides Agramonte, and Jesse Lazear, started studying the effects of the illness and how it was spread.

The doctors were led by Walter Reed, a U.S. Army physician. Together, the team discovered that mosquitoes were in fact the carriers of the virus. In order to prove their theory, the three doctors volunteered to become test subjects, exposing themselves to the infected mosquitoes. Their findings were extraordinary and paved the way towards a cure. (source)

5. John Stapp started out as an aeromedical researcher, but eventually became the ‘Fastest Man on Earth’. He sustained the greatest recorded G-forces endured by man, decelerating in 1.4 seconds, which equaled 46.2 Gs, more than anyone had previously undergone.

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Image: DoD/AF.mil

On December 10, 1954, Dr. John Paul Stapp earned the title “the fastest man on Earth” when he rode the Sonic Wind I rocket-propelled sled at the Holloman High Speed Test Track at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico and landed a speed record of 632 mph in five seconds. The test was conducted to study the effects of deceleration on human beings. When John Stapp strapped himself into the Sonic Wind I, no one thought that he would live to see another day.

Not only did he travel 632 mph in five seconds, he survived decelerating in 1.4 seconds, which equaled 46.2 Gs. No human being had ever achieved this extraordinary feat, and when the team removed his helmet, they discovered that the capillaries in both his eyes had burst. He was rushed to the hospital and doctors imagined that it would leave him with permanent damage to the eyes. To their surprise, the very next morning, Stapp had regained enough of his normal vision to be released. However, his vision was never the same. (source)

6. In 1892, Max Joseph von Pettenkofer, a Bavarian chemist and hygienist, drank a broth containing the cholera bacteria, to disprove a German physician and microbiologist who identified the bacteria to be infectious.

Max Joseph von Pettenkofer, cholera, bacteria, life, people, facts, scientists
Image: Wikimedia/Pixnio

Max Joseph von Pettenkofer (1818-1901) studied chemistry and mineralogy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. In 1865, he became the Professor of Hygiene, promoting fresh air, water and hygiene. Although he was a brilliant man, he was a believer in miasmatic contagion. Pettenkofer believed that diseases such as cholera was caused by noxious forms of “bad air” but not bacteria.

Robert Koch, a German physician and microbiologist had discovered that the disease is in fact infectious and is caused by the bacteria. Pettenkofer however, did not support this theory and was against it. In an effort to prove him wrong, on October 7, 1892, in the presence of several witnesses, Pettenkofer drank a bouillon laced with a large dose of Vibrio cholerae bacteria. The bacteria was obtained from Robert Koch himself, since Pettenkofer was sure that he was going to disprove him.

Koch also suggested that Pettenkofer consume bicarbonate of soda to neutralize his stomach acid; which he did. Within a few days, Pettenkofer started showing symptoms of cholera but denied that it had anything to do with Koch’s theory. He luckily survived and the experiment resulted in his crusade for pure water supplies. (source)




7. Werner Forssmann became the first man in history to insert a ureteral catheter tube into his elbow, feeding it through a vein up to his heart. He accomplished this feat in 1929 but suffered immense backlash from the scientific community.

Werner Forssmann, experiment, facts, scientists, life, people, history
Image: Wikimedia

In 1929, in the basement of the Eberswaled Hospital in Germany, Werner Forssmann went against his department chief’s orders and inserted a ureteral catheter tube into his elbow, feeding it through a vein and up to his heart. At first, he persuaded Gerda Ditzen, an operating-room nurse to assist. However, Ditzen agreed with the only stipulation being that the experiment be carried out on her. Forssmann agreed and went on to strap his assistant to the operating table. After she was fully restrained, he proceeded to insert the catheter tube into his own elbow.

By the time his assistant realized what was going on, Forssmann has already finished the first step. He then released her and the duo went to the X-ray department to determine that the catheter had indeed made it to the right atrium. When he showed his work to colleagues, instead of praise, he received condemnation. This rejection forced him to abandon cardiology for urology, but he was later rewarded with the Nobel Prize in 1956. (source)

8. During the late 1990’s, Kevin Warwick had his team surgically implant a silicon chip transponder into his forearm, that allowed him to operate doors, lights, heaters and other computers without lifting a finger.

Kevin Warwick, silicon chip transponder, facts, science, scientists, life
Image: Robert Scoble/DNFC

The British man is an engineer and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Coventry University in the UK. During the 1990’s, while conducting research, one of the most famous research experiments undertaken by Warwick was a surgical implant on himself. Warwick had his team implant a silicon chip transponder into his arm as part of an experiment known as Project Cyborg. The device implanted beneath Warwick’s skin allowed him to control doors, lights, heaters and other devices that was at close proximity. The transponder also allowed Warwick to monitor his nervous system through a computer. (source)




9. Alexander Bogdanov is the forgotten pioneer of blood transfusions. The Russian physician and polymath saw blood transfusions not only as replacement therapy, but also as a body stimulant. He believed that transfusions might be the key to everlasting youth, but it ended up costing him his life as a result of a hemolytic transfusion reaction.

Alexander Bogdanov, transfusion, facts, life, science, scientists, history
Image: Wikimedia/Wellcome Collections

Alexander Bogdanov, a Russian science fiction writer, doctor, and pioneer of cybernetics, was curious about everything. By the 1920’s, Bogdanov became interested in the possibilities of blood transfusions, especially when it came to prolonging his life. After convincing himself that he could make himself immortal if he transfused enough from people younger than him, he began the process of blood transfusions. He kept repeating the process, one after another, hoping to gain immortality.

Bogdanov started claiming that his eyesight was better, his hair stopped falling out and he felt ten years younger. However, he was so involved in gaining immortality that he didn’t spend enough time testing the people he was getting transfusions from. After a transfusion with a student who had malaria, Bogdanov contracted the disease and eventually succumbed to it. The student on the other hand, survived. (source)

10. In 1903, Pierre Curie taped a sample of radium salts to the skin of his arm for just 10 hours. It left him with a wound that was clearly visible 50 days after the experiment.

Pierre Curie, Marie, radium, life, people, facts, history
Image: Wikimedia

In June of 1903, physicist Pierre Curie rolled up his sleeve to curious onlookers at the UK’s Royal Institution. During the demonstration, Curie dropped some radium on the desk, which contaminated the area and took decades to clean up. Curie and his wife, Marie, hoped that radium’s burning effect might prove useful in the treatment of cancer.

During their research, they exposed themselves to several types of elements that all emitted radiation. Although these elements were having a catastrophic effect on their health, they still continued their study; hoping that it would one day pave the way for the use of radium in medicine. Sadly, they were constantly in pain, tired and falling ill. Later in 1903, they shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for their research on radiation. Marie Curie passed away on July 4, 1934, of aplastic anemia, believed to be caused by prolonged exposure to radiation. (source)




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