Self-experimentation in medicine

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Self-experimentation refers to the very special case of single-subject scientific experimentation in which the experimenter conducts the experiment on her- or himself. Usually this means that the designer, operator, subject, analyst, and user or reporter of the experiment are all the same. Self-experimentation has a long and well-documented history in medicine which continues to the present. Some of these experiments have been very valuable and shed new and often unexpected insights into different areas of medicine.

Notable examples of medical self-experimentation[edit]

ABO blood group system[edit]

Doctor Karl Landsteiner's discovery of the ABO blood group system in 1900 was based on an analysis of blood samples from six members of his laboratory staff, including himself.


Lidocaine, the first amino amide–type local anesthetic, was first synthesized under the name xylocaine by Swedish chemist Nils Löfgren in 1943.[1][2][3] His colleague Bengt Lundqvist performed the first injection anesthesia experiments on himself.[1]


Roger Altounyan developed the use of sodium cromoglycate as a remedy for asthma, based on khella, a traditional Middle Eastern remedy, with experiments on himself.


Daniel Alcides Carrión infected himself from the pus in the purple lesion in a bart No. 1 subspecies (bartonellosis) patient in 1885. He died from the disease several weeks later.[citation needed]

Cardiac catheterization[edit]

Clinical application of cardiac catheterization began with Werner Forssmann in the 1930s, who inserted a catheter into the brachial vein of his own forearm, guided it fluoroscopically into his right atrium, and took an X-ray picture of it.[4] Forssmann won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this achievement.


Max von Pettenkofer drank cholera bacteria.


Erik Jacobsen, with Jens Hald and Keneth Ferguson at the Danish drug company Medicinalco, demonstrated the effect of antabuse and alcohol on themselves.

Effect of forces on the body[edit]

John Paul Stapp sat in a rocket sled at almost the speed of sound, and then made an abrupt stop.

Heavy water[edit]

Klaus Hansen drank heavy water.[5]

Helicobacter pylori[edit]

In 1984 a Western Australian scientist, Dr Barry Marshall, discovered of the link between Helicobacter pylori and gastritis. This was based on a series of self experiments that involved gastroscopy and biopsy, ingestion of H. pylori, regastroscopy and biopsy and subsequent treatment with tinidazole. His only option was self-experimentation: ethical measures forbade him from administering H. pylori to any other person. In 2005, Marshall and his long-time collaborator Robin Warren were awarded Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, "for their discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease".


As part of the team who developed ibuprofen in the 1960s, Stewart Adams initially tested it on a hangover.

Neural implant[edit]

Kevin Warwick had an array of 100 electrodes fired into the median nerve fibres of his left arm. With this in place, over a 3-month period, he conducted a number of experiments linking his nervous system with the internet.[6]

Psychoactive drugs[edit]

  • Friedrich Sertürner isolated morphine from opium in 1804. Morphine was the first ever alkaloid isolated from any plant. Sertürner wanted to prove his findings to his colleague with a public experiment on himself and three other friends.[7]
  • Jacques-Joseph Moreau published his study "Du Hachisch et de l'aliénation mentale" in 1845. He self-experimented with hashish and observed its varying effects on other people. Moreau insisted that researchers should self-experiment to gain understanding of the altered states of cosciousness produced by psychoactive substances.
  • Psychopharmacologist Arthur Heffter isolated mescaline from the peyote cactus in 1897 and conducted experiments on its effects by comparing the effects of peyote and mescaline on himself.[8]
  • Albert Hofmann discovered the psychedelic properties of LSD in 1943 by accidentally absorbing it and later intentionally ingesting it to verify that the effects were caused by LSD. He was also the first to isolate psilocybin from psilocybin mushrooms and self-experimented with it to prove it to be the active principle of psilocybin mushrooms psychoactive effects.
  • Psychopharmacologists Alexander Shulgin synthesized and experimented with a wide array of new phenethylamine and tryptamine drugs, discovering a range of previously unknown psychoactive drug effects.

Sensory deprivation[edit]

John C. Lilly developed the first sensory deprivation tanks and self-experimented them with the intention to study the origin of consciousness and its relation to the brain by creating an environment which isolates an individual from external stimulation.

Skin transplantation[edit]

Ole Jakob Malm transplanted foreign tissue onto his own skin in order to discern among different tissue types.


Tim Friede created his own vaccine against snakebite using pure venom injections from all four species of mambas, and four cobra species to achieve high immunity. He also survived IgE shock six times with mamba injections. Others have also injected venom to create immunity to snake venom; Bill Haast, Harold Mierkey, Ray Hunter, Joel La Rocque, Herschel Flowers, Martin Crimmins, and Charles Tanner.[9]

Synthetic gases[edit]

Humphry Davy self-experimented with breathing of several different gases, most notably nitrous oxide.


In the Harrington–Hollingsworth experiment in 1950, William J. Harrington performed an exchange blood transfusion between him and a thrombocytopenic patient, discovering the immune basis of idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura and providing evidence for the existence of autoimmunity.

Weight balance[edit]

Santorio Santorio spent a large portion of 30 years living on a platform meticulously measuring his daily weight combined with that of his intake and excretion in an effort to test Galen's theory that the respiration occurs through the skin as perspiratio insensibilis (insensible perspiration).[10] The result was the 1614 publication De Statica Medicina ("On Medical Measurements").[11]

Yellow fever[edit]

In Cuba, U.S. Army doctors from Walter Reed's research team infected themselves with yellow fever including James Carroll, Aristides Agramonte, and, most notably, Jesse Lazear, who died from yellow fever complications in 1900. These efforts ultimately resulted in proof of the mosquito-borne nature of yellow fever transmission and saved countless lives. Stubbins Ffirth had investigated the contagious nature of the disease at the end of the 18th Century.


  1. ^ a b Löfgren N (1948). Studies on local anesthetics: Xylocaine: a new synthetic drug (Inaugural dissertation). Stockholm, Sweden: Ivar Heggstroms. OCLC 646046738. [page needed]
  2. ^ Löfgren N, Lundqvist B (1946). "Studies on local anaesthetics II". Svensk Kemisk Tidskrift 58: 206–17. 
  3. ^ Wildsmith JAW (2011). "Lidocaine: A more complex story than 'simple' chemistry suggests" (PDF). The Proceedings of the History of Anaesthesia Society 43: 9–16. 
  4. ^ Fontenot C, O'Leary J (1996). "Dr. Werner Forssman's self-experimentation.". Am Surg 62 (6): 514–5. PMID 8651541. 
  5. ^ "Experimenter Drinks 'Heavy Water' at $5,000 a Quart". Popular Science Monthly 126 (4) (New York: Popular Science Publishing). Apr 1935. p. 17. Retrieved 7 Jan 2011. 
  6. ^ Warwick, K, Gasson, M, Hutt, B, Goodhew, I, Kyberd, P, Andrews, B, Teddy, P and Shad, A:“The Application of Implant Technology for Cybernetic Systems”, Archives of Neurology, 60(10), pp1369-1373, 2003
  7. ^ The high life of the self-experimenters New Scientist 12 August 2014.
  8. ^ Excerpt from Arthur Heffters 1897 laboratory notebook detailing the discovery that mescaline was the centrally active compound found in the peyote cactus,, retrieved 2013-07-04 
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Eknoyan G. Santorio Sanctorius (1561-1636) - founding father of metabolic balance studies. Am J Nephrol. 1999;19(2):226-33.

See also:

  • Self-experimentation
  • Kerridge I (2003). "Altruism or reckless curiosity? A brief history of self experimentation in medicine.". Intern Med J 33 (4): 203–7. doi:10.1046/j.1445-5994.2003.00337.x. PMID 12680989. 
  • Gandevia SC (2005). "Self-experimentation, ethics and efficacy.". Monash Bioeth Rev. 24 (2): 43–48. PMID 16208882. 
  • Altman, Lawrence K. (1998). Who Goes First? : The Story of Self-Experimentation in Medicine. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-21281-9.