An American scientist growing flies inside his skin, an Australian doctor ‎swallowing ulcer-causing bacteria, and an American medical officer performing ‎crash tests. Six scientists advancing science using their own body

Dermatobia hominis is a fly species that lays its eggs on the bodies of female mosquitoes. When the mosquito sucks human blood, the skin is penetrated and the eggs enter the body and hatch inside. Developing larvae feed on the skin for eight weeks. They then dig their way out, fall to the ground, and pupate for at least a week. After this the adult fly emerges, and the cycle continues.

There are some effective ways, if not particularly pleasant, to kill the larvae in the skin or extract them. But Peter Naskercki, a biologist from Harvard University who was stung on a trip to Belize in Central America, decided not to remove them. He allowed them to develop in his skin for the sake of an experiment, and filmed them emerging from the skin, although it is not easy to watch if you are squeamish. You have been warned!

Naskercki wasn’t alone. Quite a few scientists throughout history have tested different things on the nearest available object - themselves.

New drugs undergoing clinical testing

Youyou Tu is a Chinese biologist and doctor who developed an antimalarial drug. For any new drug, the first phase of clinical trials aims to test whether it is safe for humans and find any adverse effects it may have. Sometimes it's hard to find volunteers who agree to test a drug's side effects, since some can be serious, and even dangerous.

To speed up results Tu volunteered to try the drug she developed herself, to see if it was safe to use. Fortunately it turned out that the drug was very safe and had no side effects. From there, it was easy to convince malaria patients to try the new drug. The drug was found to be not only safe but also very effective against the disease. The development of the drug (in the 1970’s) won Tu the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2015.


Tried a drug on herself and won the Nobel Prize, Youyou Tu | Photograph: Wikipedia

Ingesting bacteria

Barry Marshall, Australian physician and microbiologist, decided to also investigate on himself. In the early 1980’s he studied stomach bacteria, and came to a far-reaching conclusion; a stomach ulcer is not caused by nervousness, stress or spicy food as was thought at the time, but in actual fact by bacteria, a particular bacteria called Helicobacter pylori.

To prove his point, Marshall drank the culture of bacteria that he grew in his lab to prove these bacteria can live in the stomach. Finally he stopped the experiment by taking antibiotics before developing actual ulcers, showing he already had inflammation in the area. In 2005 he won, in conjunction with his partner Robin Warren, the Nobel Prize for Medicine for the discovery that Helicobacter pylori is the real cause of ulcers and gastritis.

Crash tests

Not all scientists accept a Nobel Prize for experiments they do on themselves, and not all get away with the self-experimentation either. There are also those that end up in worse circumstances. In the 1940’s, John Stapp, a medical officer in the US Air Force, wanted to test the influence of sudden deceleration on the human body to examine how the body copes with a plane crash. His reasoning was to help develop effective protective measures for pilots. To test his hypothesis he used a rocket sled that was able to develop tremendous acceleration, and he often volunteered to sit in it himself.

Up until his experiments, the conventional understanding was that the human body could withstand an acceleration of 18g, i.e. 18 times the acceleration of a free fall, but Stapp proved it was actually possible to survive an acceleration of 46g. But his many experiments not only shattered the conventional theory – they also shattered his bones… He suffered serious injuries including broken ribs and limbs, and severely damaged his vision as a result of an explosion of blood vessels in the eye.

Eventually Stapp recovered from most of his injuries and lived until the ripe old age of 89. His experiments did help in the development of safety measures for pilots, as well as seatbelts for drivers.

Hallucinatory research

In 1938, Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann studied the medicinal uses of materials produced from mushrooms. One of the products used in experimentation was a substance called lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD for short. The material did not cause much excitement, until a small incident occurred due to the lack of safety measures taken in the laboratory.

In 1943, Hofmann’s hands touched the material, and then he inadvertently touched his mouth. He experienced hallucinations and changes in consciousness, and after recovering he repeatedly tried it to further study its properties. Only later the material was deemed dangerous to use. From then on, in further studies on other materials, Hofmann always tasted and smelled them, which eventually led to the discovery of magic mushrooms and the identification of their active ingredients.

Hofmann studied many hallucinogens, and also synthesized them, but did so only for medical reasons and actually opposed the use of drugs for recreational purposes. In 1963, when faced with throat cancer, he asked his wife to inject LSD to help him overcome the pain. In the end, despite his partaking in many drug experiments (and possibly thanks to them) Hofmann lived a prolonged life only passing away in 2008, at the age of 102.


Lived long thanks to LSD? Albert Hofmann | Photograph: Wikipedia 

The yellow story

One of the most bizarre researchers experimenting on themselves would be Stubbins Ffirth, who was trying to prove in an unconventional way that yellow fever disease is not contagious. In 1793 an epidemic of yellow fever raged in Philadelphia killing approximately 5,000 people - about a tenth of the city's residents. After the plague Ffirth hypothesized that the disease is not contagious at all, and rather the outburst was a result of the heat of summer, which was the season when the disease was widespread.

Ffirth, who was convinced he was right, spared no effort to prove it. He came into direct contact with patients' body fluids including blood, saliva, urine and even vomit. He drank them and applied them to his body, and inserted it into cuts in his skin and eye sockets. After all this he did not contract the dangerous disease, so Ffirth believed he had proof for his theory and ruled that the disease is not contagious. It turned out that it was actually very contagious, but the virus that causes it is not transmitted directly from person to person, but only through mosquito bites.

So in the end, only a handful of these stories of scientists who did studies on themselves actually made a difference. In the early years of modern chemistry many researchers would taste and smell synthesized materials, which probably did not contribute to their health. It is assumed today, for example, the health of Carl Wilhelm Scheele, one of the fathers of modern chemistry, who used to smell and taste the materials he created, including cyanide and other toxins, extremely deteriorated following the tests he did on himself. Even Marie Curie, the Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry and physics, fell ill and died of cancer after years of working with radioactive materials. So please heed our warnings and do not try this at home!

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