Science’s Favorite Self-Experimenters, Self-Endangerers, and Self-Agonizers

Science needs the fearless

Earlier this month, scientists shared a tale of a desperate man whose daring effort to cure himself may have led to a new, albeit odd, medical treatment: swallowing worm eggs. But worm man is far from the first to take desperate measures in the name of progress. There’s a long line of heroes who have knowingly and willingly exposed themselves to discomfort, danger or even death for science’s sake.

Take John Paul Stapp, the pained-looking man in the photo montage above. Stapp, who died in 1999, was hailed as the fastest man on Earth, willingly hopping onto a rocket sled to test the effects of acceleration and deceleration forces on humans. When Stapp started his research in 1947, most other physicians believed humans would suffer fatal trauma around 18 g — but Stapp shattered this belief, exposing himself to more than 40 g of thrust in one test. In the image above, he’s riding on a rocket sled at 421 mph.

Throughout his tests, he suffered rib fractures, retinal hemorrhages and two wrist fractures, but believed he had not reached the limit of human speed tolerance.

And there are plenty of other examples. From the man who catheterized his own heart to the doctors who died seeking cures for tropical diseases, here we pay homage to a dozen of these brave souls. (And a couple just plain crazy ones.)

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Eating Roundworm Eggs

In a study published Dec. 2, doctors told the story of a 36-year-old California man who swallowed worm eggs to treat his inflammatory bowel disease. The anonymous man visited a doctor in Thailand and swallowed the eggs of a human roundworm that infects the large intestine. It wasn’t a complete lark — the man had brushed up on the medical literature and knew that several researchers have proposed worm therapy to provide relief for anything from Crohn’s disease to asthma. But his leap of faith paid off. Within a year of gulping down roundworm eggs, his symptoms had all but disappeared, scientists said. They explain that his body produced mucus in an effort to expel the worms, and the thick fluid coated the man’s intestines, soothing the ulcers in the lining of his colon. This photo shows Trichuris trichiura roundworm eggs taken during a colonoscopy.

Descending Into A Volcano

A steel-armored, mustachioed man dangling by an asbestos thread 800 feet into the mouth of an active volcano may sound like a scene written by Dante. For Arpad Kirner, writing in the April 1933 issue of Popular Science, it was the definition of scientific adventure. Kirner describes a hellish landscape in the bowels of Mt. Stromboli, a volcanic island off the coast of Sicily, in which the rocks are hot enough to boil water and the air reaches 150 degrees F. Kirner wore an asbestos suit and steel armor to protect himself from flying rocks, and spent three hours in the volcano, studying its “incandescent sea of liquid lava, agitated, boiling, shaken with convulsions.” Other volcanologists have not been so lucky. On May 18, 1980, U.S. Geological Survey volcanologist David Johnston was camping on Coldwater Ridge, a few miles north of Mount St. Helens. Johnston had been studying the volcano since it began stirring in March, after a 123-year dormancy. At 8:32 a.m., he radioed the USGS base with his last words: “Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!” The blast killed Johnston and 56 others. He was 30. Don’t ever let anyone tell you rocks are boring.

Studying the Cosmos From Underground

Volcano researchers are not the only ones who voluntarily enter the bowels of the earth for science. Though their work concerns the farthest reaches of the universe, cosmologists need to venture deep underground to answer some of their most pressing questions. Their work takes place in abandoned mines, underneath mountains (like the Gran Sasso National Laboratory of the Italian Institute of Nuclear Physics, seen above) and buried in thousands of feet of Antarctic ice. In these subterranean lairs, they look for subatomic particles called neutrinos, which have no charge and are virtually massless. Not much else can penetrate all those miles of earth and ice, so if cosmologists see a flash, they know they’ve found something interesting. Engineers working at the South Pole are drilling 85 holes 8,000 feet into the ice, depositing light sensors that will look for neutrinos. The IceCube Neutrino Observatory will be 14 times more sensitive than its closest cousin, the 2-year-old Antares detector beneath the Mediterranean Sea. Luckily, once the final sensors are buried this month, physicists can monitor them from their toasty offices.

Drinking Heavy Water

Anyone who has ever licked a battery (which we are NOT recommending) has probably been intrigued by the tingly, buzzing sensation on your tongue. Perhaps it was similar to the sensation Norwegian scientist Klaus Hansen felt as he drank a quart of heavy water. He reported a “mild shock and burning lips,” according to the April 1935 issue of Popular Science. Heavy water — which is denser than regular H2O and has a higher proportion of the hydrogen isotope deuterium — is poisonous to small fish and plants, but at the time, scientists didn’t know why. No one knew what would happen as Hansen took his first sip, so onlookers were armed with stomach pumps and defibrillators. He drank more each day to measure its effects, and two years later, when PopSci checked in to see how he was doing, he was “still enjoying the best of health.” Large concentrations of heavy water are toxic because it prevents cell division. Today, its use is closely monitored because it can be used to produce plutonium from natural uranium, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

Drinking Cholera – And Living To Tell About It

Most scientists had come to accept germ theory by the late 19th century, partly because of the German bacteriologist Robert Koch, who discovered the bug that causes tuberculosis. Koch was convinced cholera, that other Victorian-era scourge, was also caused by germs, but one colleague was less certain. Max von Pettenkofer thought cholera spread through the atmosphere, rather than from person to person, and to prove the germs were not enough to infect him, he and some of his students downed test tubes full of cholera. He didn’t get sick, and though some of his students developed minor infections, he claimed victory. It was bittersweet, however. As author John M. Barry recounts in his book “The Great Influenza,” the water supplies of Hamburg and neighboring Altona were contaminated with cholera in 1892. Altona filtered its water, and Hamburg did not; Altona citizens did not get sick, while 8,606 Hamburgers died. Pettenkofer was reviled for his claims, and in a fit of depression, he killed himself, Barry writes.

Injecting Yourself With A Rabbit Disease

European rabbits were introduced to Australia in 1859, but without native predators and with an abundant food supply, they multiplied like, well, like rabbits. Nearly 100 years later, 600 million bunnies were competing with livestock for food and water, and authorities needed to do something. They decided to introduce a rabbit disease called myxomatosis, and it worked wonders — 99 percent of Australia’s rabbits succumbed. It was the world’s first successful biological control program of a mammalian pest, boasts the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australian’s national science agency. Shortly afterward, a human encephalitis epidemic spread through the state of New South Wales, and the public blamed myxomatosis. Hoping to quell their fears, three Australian scientists, Frank Fenner, McFarlane Burnet and Ian Clunies Ross, injected themselves with myxomatosis. They were fine, and the public’s fears were put to rest, according to CSIRO.


While a surgical resident in Berlin in 1929, Werner Theodor Otto Forßmann theorized that a catheter could be inserted directly into the heart. He believed the small tube could be used to inject drugs or dyes and monitor heart activity, but it was considered dangerous and potentially fatal. To demonstrate its safety, Forßmann used himself as the first human subject. The Nobel Foundation, which awarded him the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1956, explains that Forßmann inserted a catheter into a vein in his own forearm, threaded it 25 inches into his heart and walked to the radiology department, where this X-ray was taken, showing the catheter in his right atrium. His experiment was condemned as foolhardy and dangerous, and in the face of criticism he abandoned cardiology for urology. Forßmann was a Nazi, and was a medical officer in the German army before being captured and put into a POW camp. During his imprisonment, two physicians, one American and one French, read his catheterization paper and applied it to cardiac research. Dickinson W. Richards, André Frédéric Cournand and Forßmann shared the Nobel Prize.

Injected With Blood From Someone Else’s Wart

Some self-injectors are not so lucky. Daniel Alcides Carrión Garcia, for whom Carrion’s disease is named, was a medical student in Peru who was studying Oroya fever and verruga peruana, particularly nasty diseases only found in Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. It is caused by a bacteria transmitted by sandflies like the one seen above. Verruga peruana is usually a benign condition and is characterized by multiple disfiguring tumors, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Oroya fever involves fever and anemia and has a high fatality rate. Carrión hoped to learn how to diagnose Verruga peruana before the tumors erupted, and decided the best way to learn was to inoculate himself. On Aug. 27, 1885, he used a lancet to inoculate his arm with blood taken from a wart above the right eyebrow of a 14-year-old boy. The CDC gives the following account, taken from his diaries: “21 days after the inoculation, on September 17, Carrión felt discomfort and pain in his left ankle. Two days later, fever began. He also experienced chills, abdominal cramps, and pain in all the bones and joints in his body. He was unable to eat anything, and he commented in his diary that his thirst was devastating.” He realized he was not suffering from verruga, but from a related illness, Oroya fever. “This is the evident proof that Oroya fever and the verruga have the same origin,” he wrote. He died Oct. 5, 1885.

Letting Mosquitoes Bite You — A Lot

Carrión is among a long line of doctors who allow themselves to be infected, bitten, scratched and injected in an effort to understand and cure diseases. In the 1980s, Stephen Hoffman, founder and CEO of a company called Sanaria, dedicated solely to finding a malaria vaccine, got himself bit by malarial mosquitoes to test a vaccine. It didn’t work (he recovered after a nasty bout with the disease). And there are plenty of others. Perhaps few are as sad as the tale of Dr. Jesse William Lazear, an Army physician who worked with Walter Reed and others on a study of yellow fever. He allowed himself to be bitten by yellow fever-infected mosquitoes like the one in this image, and died of the disease at age 34. But his work explained how yellow fever is transmitted by older mosquitoes, in which the disease has been allowed to incubate. Lazear never admitted to experimenting on himself, but when Reed reviewed Lazear’s notes after his death, he evidently found entries strongly suggesting Lazear’s yellow fever was not an accident. “His death was not in vain — his name will live in the history of those who have benefited humanity,” Reed later wrote.

Breathing A New Experimental Gas

Self-experimentation is not always depressing. Sometimes it’s a gas. Take Humphry Davy, for instance, who experimented with nitrous oxide and got himself addicted. His friends, who included James Watt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, all became regular users of laughing gas — Watt even built him a special gas chamber for his inhalation experiments. Though Davy and his friends noted the gas’ ability to take away pain — using it to cure hangovers and treat a toothache, among other uses — he apparently never considered its use as an anesthetic, according to Richard Holmes’ book “The Age of Wonder.” He missed a huge opportunity, but at least he enjoyed himself.

Professor X – Creating and Testing Psychoactive Drugs

Ecstasy may be a recreational drug these days, but it was initially designed to treat depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. And its creator went through hell to develop it and several other psychoactive compounds. Since his work on MDMA in the 1970s, Alexander Shulgin discovered and self-tested more than 230 psychoactive compounds, some of which have induced uncontrollable vomiting, paralysis and “the feeling that his bones were melting,” according to a Scientific American report from 2008. Shulgin consulted with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for many years, and had a license to possess and analyze any type of drug. But in 1994, the DEA raided his lab in Berkeley, Calif. (where else?) and fined him $25,000. Shulgin, 85, suffered a stroke last month but is recovering.

The Fastest Man in the World

Astronauts have nothing on John Paul Stapp. The original Rocketman, as the Air Force fondly calls him, traveled faster than any other human and was also the fastest to stop. He volunteered to be a human decelerator in military crash tolerance tests, hoping to illuminate how humans handle extremely fast acceleration and deceleration. He’s seen here in one of his decelerator sled tests. In a 1954 test, Stapp went from zero to 632 mph in five seconds, riding on a special rocket sled. He screeched to a halt in just 1.4 seconds, sustaining more than 40 g of thrust, according to the Air Force. That’s the equivalent of hitting a brick wall in a car traveling at 120 mph. Throughout his tests, he suffered rib fractures, retinal hemorrhages and two wrist fractures (the second of which he reset himself, the Air Force heritage program says). But he had no permanent disabilities; Stapp believed human acceleration tolerance was even greater than his studies showed.

Testing a Homemade Parachute

Not everyone can survive daredevil flight experiments, however. A year after Wilbur and Orville Wright’s miracle at Kitty Hawk, an Austrian tailor designed a special overcoat-parachute thingy and expected it would help him fly, or at least glide. With a video camera rolling, Franz Reichelt leapt off the Eiffel Tower — and plunged quickly to his death. The macabre video ends with men solemnly measuring the crater he left behind. Watch it here.