Stubbins Ffirth (1784–1820) was an American trainee doctor notable for his unusual investigations into the cause of yellow fever. He theorized that the disease was not contagious, believing that the drop in cases during winter showed that it was more likely a result of the heat and stresses of the summer months. While correct in noting that yellow fever was significantly more prevalent in summer, Ffirth's explanation proved to be incorrect. It was a full six decades after his death that a breakthrough would be made, with Cuban scientist Carlos Finlay discovering the link to mosquitoes carrying the disease.
The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, the largest yellow fever epidemic in American history, killed as many as 5,000 people in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – roughly 10% of the population. Ffirth joined the University of Pennsylvania a few years later and studied the disease that had so significantly impacted the area. He set out to prove that it was not a contagious disease, and was so sure of his theory that he began performing experiments on himself.
Ffirth decided to bring himself into direct contact with bodily fluids from those that had become infected. He started to make incisions on his arms and smeared vomit into the cuts, then proceeded to pour it onto his eyeballs. He continued to try to infect himself using infected vomit by frying it and inhaling the fumes, and, when he did not become ill, drank it undiluted. Endeavoring to prove that other bodily fluids yielded the same results, Ffirth progressed on from vomit, and would go on to smear his body with blood, saliva, and urine. He still managed to avoid contracting the disease and saw this as proof for his hypothesis. However, it was later shown that the samples Ffirth had used for his experiments came from late-stage patients who were no longer contagious.
Ffirth published his findings in his 1804 thesis A Treatise on Malignant Fever; with an Attempt to Prove its Non-contagious Non-Malignant Nature.
- Smaglik, Paul (October 16, 2003). "It could be worse.." Retrieved 2008-01-13.
- Chaves-Carballo E (2005). "Carlos Finlay and yellow fever: triumph over adversity". Mil Med. 170 (10): 881–5. doi:10.7205/milmed.170.10.881. PMID 16435764.
- "Yellow Fever Attacks Philadelphia, 1793". EyeWitness to History. Retrieved 2008-01-13.
- Boese, Alex (September 7, 2007). "Did they really do that?". Retrieved 2008-01-13.
- Boese, Alex. "The Top 20 Most Bizarre Experiments of All Time". Retrieved 2008-01-13.