In the world of science, using other people and animals as test subjects is very useful, but sometimes if you want to get something done right, you have to do it yourself. The following list contains stories of self-experimentation, all done in the name of science. Some experiments ended in great breakthroughs being made, while others ended in disaster.
#20 The Human Crash-Test Dummy
John Paul Stapp was an experienced Air Force officer and flight surgeon who was very interested in the effects of rapid acceleration and deceleration, among other things, on the human body. While the thought of what happens to the human body when it is quickly accelerated to its limits seems disheartening to many, Stapp took it upon himself to showcase these effects in an attempt to improve aircraft safeguards and equipment. At the time, it was believed that the human body could only withstand up to 18 G-forces before death resulted. Stapp, on the other hand, proved this limit to be much larger as he subjected himself to greater peak G-forces than any human had experienced.
Using a massive rocket sled decelerator known as the “Gee Wiz,” Stapp was able to prove that humans could withstand 46 times the force of gravity using the correct harness. The G-forces were ramped up at a rate of 500 Gs per second (he later did another trial up to 38 Gs at a rate of 1,300 Gs per second). Of course, just because he was alive didn’t mean his body was happy about it: he suffered broken limbs, ribs, a detached retina, burst blood vessels, and an array of other injuries. In his experiments on the effects of altitude sickness and decompression sickness, this human crash-test dummy decided to strip down his B-17 bomber and fly at 13,700 meters (45,000 ft) altitude for 65 hours with an open cockpit in a depressurized cabin. In doing so, Stapp subjected himself to 570 mph winds.
He discovered that if pilots inhaled pure oxygen for 30 minutes before take off, they could handle insanely high altitudes much better. He was able to develop a sideways-facing harness, lap belt, and shoulder strap on fighter seats for greater safety. His discoveries also led to the requirement of seat-belts in cars.
#19 Self-Surgery (Appendectomy)
Most people put their total faith in their surgeons when they need an operation, but Evan O’Neill Kane wasn’t going to have any of that and felt no one was more fit for the job than himself. In an extremely bizarre case of self-experimentation, Kane wanted to experience the process of surgery from the patient’s point of view in order to better understand their perspective. Kane hoped to use local anesthetics on patients who wouldn’t respond to general ones and, in the ultimate act of taking one for the team, took it upon himself to test the validity of his hypothesis.
While Kane did have a history of performing self-operations like amputating one of his fingers, this surgery was the first of its kind. Ether was a popular general anesthetic used in the day, but Kane felt it was too dangerous and wished to see the effects of Novocain as a local anesthetic. After he dosed himself up with Novocain, Kane got to work on removing his appendix with the use of mirrors. The operation at the time required a much larger incision than today, making it significantly more dangerous. Despite the risks, the 60-year-old had completed the surgery over 4,000 times on other patients. This operation was no different: he was up and moving the next day. The operation lasted just 30 minutes and the only scary moment occurred when his intestine popped out because of how he was sitting.
Ten years later, at the age of 70, Kane was also able to repair his own hernia. This operation was especially dangerous because of how close the incisions were to his femoral artery. Unfortunately, other complications got to him, and a bad case of pneumonia killed him within a few months.
#18 The Human Billy Goat
Rather than just exercise or dieting, Fredrick Hoelzel set out on an extreme weight loss diet of eating foods without calories. Now before you get all excited about this new weight loss technique, these non-caloric objects should hardly be classified as “foods.” Hoelzel began eating things like corncobs, cork, feathers, sawdust, asbestos, rayon, and banana stems in an attempt to lose weight during those pudgy and embarrassing teenage years. His daily diet almost always consisted of his favorite “food,” surgical cotton. As a researcher at the University of Chicago, Hoelzel put his diet to good use by eating objects to see how quickly they passed through him in the name of science. Small steel and silver objects took a mere eight hours, while gold pellets took a whopping 22 days. Glass beads were able to slip through in only 40 hours. The fastest-digested object was a piece of twine that zipped through in only 1.5 hours. His weight loss method was incredibly effective, leaving him pale and malnourished. I wouldn’t suggest trying this at home.
#17 Testing the Testes
While to most men, having multiple weights stacked on to your testicles seems a little too extreme for any scientific experiment, Hebert Woollard and Edward Carmichael jumped at the chance. While its not confirmed which of the scientists used their testicles (which is odd because if I had been a part of the experiment, I’d definitely claim the pain I went through for science), they were studying the phenomena of referred pain. Referred pain is the sensation of pain in another part of the body when an internal organ is harmed. While there were a myriad of organs to choose from, Carmichael and Woollard decided the testicles would be the most accessible organs (clearly neither of them were too concerned about having kids).
One of the men laid out on a table as the other stood over him and added the weights. The observations that were made were just as stoic as we’d expect, using phrases like “slight discomfort in the right groin” or “severe testicular pain on right side at 650 grams.” The men were able to prove that harm to the testicles does produce referred pain as it spread across their back once the weight reached 0.9 kilograms (2.0 lb). In addition, they continued their experiments by numbing certain parts of the testicles to see the effects on the pain. Not surprisingly, their work and conclusions on referred pain by the testes have been unconfirmed since no other scientists has been willing to duplicate their experiment.
#16 The Sleep Scholar
Nathaniel Kleitman was known as the world’s first sleep scholar. While humans spend about one-third of their lives asleep, there was very little known about sleep itself during Kleitman’s time. Thanks to Kleitman’s sleep self-experiments, we learned a lot about REM cycles, Circadian rhythms, and sleep deprivation. In one experiment, Kleitman kept himself awake for 115 consecutive hours to observe the effects of sleep deprivation on mental activity. At one point, he began to hallucinate that he was arguing with someone about labor unions when he randomly yelled out, “It is because they are against the system.”
In another experiment, Kleitman and his assistant wanted to see if humans actually do have a biological clock. Prior to the study, it was unknown whether the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle was voluntary and flexible or hard-wired and unchangeable. In order to study this, they spent 32 days in Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. The cave was a perfect place to try to manipulate their biological clocks to run on a 28-hour sleep cycle because of its lack of natural light, constant temperature, and lack of environment cues. While his partner was able to switch successfully after just a week, Kleitman was not as lucky. He also spent two weeks on a submarine studying the sleep patterns of sailors and finding ways to make them work more efficiently just by tampering with their sleep schedules.
#15 The First Real Hippy
Albert Hofmann can definitively take the award for suffering the trippiest self-experiment. It happened while he was trying to find medical uses for ergot. Most people know ergot as the fungus found on bread that has been blamed for multiple bouts of hysteria like the Pont-Saint-Esprit phenomena and the Salem Witch Trials. During his research, he stumbled upon the chemical lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. His first acid trip was somewhat accidental when he spilled some of the chemical on his fingertips.
He described the trip as being “affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination . . . I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”
In 1943, his most famous and first intentional hallucinatory trip is now commonly called “Bicycle Day.” He gave himself what he thought was a small dose of 250 micrograms of LSD to observe its effects. He experienced vivid and exciting hallucinations on his bicycle ride home from the lab. Hofmann was able to develop an array of other psychedelic drugs that helped to make the decade of the hippies great. Despite taking LSD along with many other psychedelic drugs hundreds of times, Hofmann was able to live until 2008, when he was 102.
#14 Giovanni Grassi
Giovanni Grassi was an Italian doctor who was mainly interested in parasitology and zoology. One day he took his research to the extreme when he ran an autopsy on a man whose intestines were stuffed to bursting with roundworms. In the name of science, Grassi decided to ingest some of these eggs in order to not only showcase the roundworm’s life cycle, but prove how it’s transmitted as well. Grassi was able to extract the eggs from the corpse and keep them in a solution to ensure they would remain alive.
In order to ensure he wasn’t already infected prior to ingestion, Grassi had to examine his fecal matter under a microscope for almost a year. Once he was able to confirm he was roundworm-free, he ingested the fecal eggs from the corpse. After a month, Grassi began to experience the discomfort of the roundworms and pulling eggs out of his stool. He was then able to kill them off as easily as he had taken them in by flushing them out with an herbal medicine. This ingestion of worms became something of a craze as students and professors at several universities began ingesting eggs to grow worms up to 1.8 meters (6.0 ft) long inside of them. While it’s not a science project I would want to take part in, Grassi is credited with the discovery that roundworms are transmitted through the fecal matter of humans.
#13 The Real Spider-Man
Allan Blair, also known as the “Real Spider-Man,” is famous for his research and self-experimentation in the field of entomology and toxicology. Despite another entomologist already having completed a similar self-experiment 12 years earlier, Blair wanted to experience the effects of a bite from a black widow. Blair and his assistants made sure they had thoroughly pissed the female off by starving her for two weeks prior to the bite.
He allowed the female black widow to bite him for 10 seconds (enough time to get all of its venom into his body). He noted that the bite felt like a needle and the burning began to intensify as time went on. The bite was so tiny that Blair couldn’t see it, but the area around the bite had grown pale and his entire finger turned red. The throbbing pain began to spread as his hand grew numb. As the toxins traveled through his lymphatic system, he experienced pain in his lymph nodes and various other parts of his body. The wound began to swell and Blair was brought to the hospital. The pain left him with an impaired ability to speak and breathe as he fell into a state of shock.
At one point, he was given morphine to reduce the pain that lasted for three agonizing days. The suffering that Blair endured gave doctors most of the symptoms that regularly appear in black widow victims allowing them to more easily diagnose bite victims. The symptoms also gave doctors a glimpse into how the black widow’s toxins affect the body. Thanks to his suffering, skeptics who thought black widows weren’t dangerous got over their skepticism. Blair made a full recovery, but refused to partake in a second bite experiment to verify the results. Unfortunately, he also failed to exhibit any of the symptoms reported by Peter Parker following his encounter with a radioactive spider.
#12 This Will Only Hurt A Little
August Bier was a German surgeon who performed the first operation using spinal anesthesia. Spinal anesthesia had a lot of promise for patients who could not handle the severe side effects of general anesthesia. At the time, anesthetizing the spine meant cocaine was injected into the patient’s spinal cord, causing them to feel no pain and yet remain conscious. Bier was able to perform operations on six patients using spinal anesthesia before deciding to feel what it was like and have it performed on him.
Following the operations, patients complained of nausea, vomiting, severe headaches, and leg and back pain. Bier had his assistant, Augustus Hildebrandt, administer the anesthesia to him, but as he went to fit the syringe into the needle, he found that it wouldn’t fit and most of the cerebrospinal fluid leaked out. The experiment left him with a rather larger hole in his spine. Even though Bier’s chance at undergoing the anesthesia was ruined, they attempted it on Hildebrandt only a couple of hours later. The numbing of Hildebrandt was a success as he was soon unable to feel his legs or move after the cocaine spinal anesthetic was given to him. In what I believe to be a not-so-subtle form of payback, Bier tested the extent of numbness in Hildebrandt’s body by kicking him in the shins, hitting him with an iron hammer, burning him with cigars, pulling out his pubic hairs, and even smashing his testicles.
Remarkably, Hildebrandt felt nothing and the experiment had been a success. As the anesthetic wore off, both men did experience the severe headaches and symptoms their patients complained of. However, this didn’t faze them because they had discovered a new and successful form of sedation that quickly caught on in the medical world, a discovery they celebrated by drinking excessively.
#11 Joseph Barcroft Gets Gassed
Working as a researcher after graduating from Cambridge, Barcroft was very interested in idea of the oxygenation in blood. In order to complete his studies, Barcroft committed himself to several self-experiments that pushed him to the edge of his physical and mental limits. In one of his first experiments on the study of dangerous gases known to cause asphyxiation during the chemical warfare of WWI, he decided to shut himself into a chamber full of hydrogen cyanide (prussic acid) for a full 10 minutes. While the dog that accompanied him lasted only 95 seconds before dying, Barcroft was able to tough it out and last the full 10 minutes.
In another experiment, Barcroft stayed in a low-oxygen glass chamber to find the minimum amount of oxygen a human needed to survive. For nearly a week, he lived at the equivalent of an elevation of 4,900 meters (16,000 ft), causing his whole body to turn blue. In his last and most drastic self-experiment, Barcroft locked himself naked into a refrigerated chamber to test the effects of freezing on mental activity. Barcroft found that, at a certain point close to lethal hypothermia, the body actually begins to feel warm rather than freezing cold. Barcroft had the ability to voluntarily leave the chamber at any time just as he had entered, but chose to stay until he became unconscious and a research assistant had to rescue him.
#10 Jose Delgado and the Remote Control Bull
José Manuel Rodriguez Delgado was a Yale University professor whose area of expertise dealt with the electrical nature of our brain. He invented a device called a stimoceiver through which he could control the behavior and emotions of test subjects, with the help of electrodes implanted in the brain.
His experiments were so successful, he briefly became a matador just to prove it. On one occasion, he stepped into an arena with an implanted bull, armed with nothing but a remote control. He was able to stop the charging animal by stimulating its motor cortex.
He implanted stimoceivers on monkeys and even humans. Before judging him, keep in mind that all of the human subjects volunteered for the procedure. He also invented an early version of the pacemaker and his research was a leap forward in understanding how the brain works.
#9 The Stanford Prison Experiment
This experiment proved that human beings will abuse power if given the chance. It was set up in 1971 by a team of researchers at the Stanford University.
Twenty-four students were randomly selected and assigned the roles of guards and prisoners at a mock prison in the basement of one of the University buildings. The experiment was scheduled to last for one or two weeks but had to be shut down after only six days. Why?
The students played their part well. Too well. The guards quickly became abusive, subjecting the prisoners to various forms of psychological torture.
The highly-criticized experiment was immortalized in various forms of media.
#8 Weight of The Soul
In 1901, Dr. Duncan MacDougall wanted to see if the human soul carried any weight. In order to find out, he performed a series of experiments aimed at measuring its weight.
MacDougall placed six terminally ill patients suffering from tuberculosis on industrial scales. He would then carefully measure if any change in weight had occurred at the patients’ time of death.
According to MacDougall, the patients registered a weight change of precisely 21 grams, a difference he claimed was consistent throughout the group. Fifteen dogs were subjected to a similar experiment, as a control group but no significant weight change was registered.
It was later revealed that his experiment was flawed and only one patient had lost 21 grams after death.
#7 Science of Horny Chicken
Male turkeys aren’t particularly picky when it comes to ladies. Naturally, this behavior sparked the interest of two researchers at the University of Pennsylvania who wondered how gullible turkeys really were.
In order to get a scientific angle on this issue, Martin Schein and Edgar Hale started removing parts from a turkey model one by one. The male turkey showed interest even when the girl of his dreams was nothing but a head on a stick.
The turkey responded well when a freshly cut female head was impaled on a stick. As it turns out, even turkeys can’t quit cold turkey. It didn’t even have to be a real head as the male proved by attempting to mate with a fake one made of balsa wood.
Interestingly enough, the turkey showed no interest towards a decapitated body.
A similar experiment was performed using White Leghorn cocks and the results of the study were published in an article called “Effects of morphological variations of chicken models on sexual responses of cocks.”
#6 Elephant on LSD
Three researchers from the University of Oklahoma wanted to see what happened if you gave an elephant LSD. To be accurate, they were curious if dropping acid would make a male elephant go into musth, a highly aggressive state through which bull elephants go each year.
Tusko, a male Indian elephant at the Oklahoma City Zoo was chosen for this experiment and subsequently injected with 297 milligrams of lysergic acid diethylamide. For comparison, the typical recreational dose for humans is about 60 micrograms and it’s intended for oral use. Tusko was shot in the buttock with a dart containing enough acid for 5,000 humans to trip on.
Five minutes later, he collapsed and began convulsing. One hour and forty minutes after being injected, Tusko died.
Some speculate that it wasn’t the LSD that killed him but rather the drugs the researchers used in an attempt to revive him.
Later experiments performed with significantly smaller doses showed that when on LSD, elephants tend to make strange noises. Who doesn’t?
#5 Dancing Corpse
Skip this one if you’re sensitive to the desecration of human bodies with the help of electricity.
In 1780 Luigi Galvani discovered that electricity caused the limbs of dead frogs to twitch. His experiment was soon repeated by men of science all over Europe. It would only be a matter of time until frogs became boring and people would turn their attention to something more interesting: people.
Galvani’s own nephew, Giovanni Aldini toured Europe, delighting audiences with his macabre experiment. On January 17, 1803, Aldini applied 120 volts of electricity to the body of a freshly-executed murderer.
When he placed the electrodes on the mouth and ear, the body displayed a disquieting rictus, opening its left eye and causing most of the female audience to pass out. Aldini culminated his show with hooking a wire to the dead man’s ear and shoving the other in the rectum. The corpse started to violently convulse in what must have certainly been called “a ghastly spectacle” by the attendees.
Shame on you, Luigi Galvani’s nephew!
#4 Bringing a Dog Back to Life
At the age of 18, Robert E. Cornish graduated with honors from the University of California, Berkeley. By the age of 22, he had received his doctorate. Being a prodigy and all, by the age of 29, Cornish was already considering the idea of bringing the dead back to life.
He managed to perfect a method consisting of moving corpses up and down to get the blood flowing while injecting a cocktail of epinephrine (synthetic adrenaline) and anticoagulants. He managed to revive two clinically dead dogs, Lazarus IV and V in 1934 and in 1935.
After successfully bringing the dogs back to life, he wanted to try the same thing, only using humans this time. A Death-row inmate volunteered for the procedure but the authorities denied his petition. If the experiment worked, the revived inmate would have had to be freed under the Double Jeopardy clause, which states that once acquitted, a defendant may not be tried for the same offense.
#3 Kelloggs Ape and Child
Science and prejudice don’t mix. It’s very likely that Winthrop Kellogg adhered to this creed when he performed his most famous experiment on comparative psychology.
Kellogg wanted to find similarities between humans and other primates so he made a bold move.
In the summer of 1931, he brought Gua, a seven month old female chimpanzee into his family. For the next nine months, Gua and Kellogg’s 10 month old son, Donald would be treated as equals. The two received the same care and attention; they were fed, bathed, dressed and taught in a similar manner.
As expected, Gua outgrew Donald quickly, even learning faster in some aspects.
However, she made no attempts to communicate through human language so the study was interrupted after 9 months. Intriguingly, Donald started imitating Gua, making barking sounds whenever food was presented.
The experiment concluded that “Gua, treated as a human child, behaved like a human child except when the structure of her body and brain prevented her. This being shown, the experiment was discontinued.”
#2 Monkey Business with Monkey Heads
In the end, you can’t turn a chimp into a human. What about monkeys, can you change a monkey’s head? As it turns out, you can. Literally.
Robert J. White was an American neurosurgeon really dedicated to his trade. During his career, he performed over 10,000 surgeries and wrote close to 1,000 publications. Some of those surgical operations involved monkey head transplants.
In 1970, White successfully performed a monkey head transplant. The success lasted for nine days, until the body’s immune system rejected the transplanted head. During this period, the composite monkey was able to hear, smell, taste and eat. It also followed objects with its eyes, which meant it could see as well.
However, the procedure involved severing its spine so the monkey was paralyzed from the neck down.
In the 1990s, White performed similar procedures on corpses at a mortuary. He wanted to perfect his technique and hoped he could do head transplant surgeries on physicist Stephen Hawking and actor Christopher Reeve.
Recently, his work was picked up by Sergio Canavero, an Italian neurosurgeon who said head transplants could become a feasible option as early as 2017. Canavero believes paralysis can be eliminated from the list of pesky ‘side-effects’ by gluing severed neurons with the help of an organic compound called polyethylene glycol.
#1 Two Headed Dog
If you were wondering where White got his inspiration from, we got that covered. His work was influenced by that of Soviet scientist and pioneer in the field of organ transplant, Vladimir Demikhov.
Over the course of his career, Demikhov transplanted twenty puppy heads onto the bodies of adult dogs. Most of them died in less than a week but one subject managed to live for 29 days.
Before labeling him crazy, know that his work was a major influence on the field of transplantology. In fact, he invented the term.
The first successful human heart transplant was performed by a South African cardiac surgeon who gave credit to Demikhov for being his teacher and inspiration.