Self-experimentation: a scientific history

Throughout recorded history, scientists have made themselves their own test subjects. How - and why?
09 February 2021

Interview with 

Barry Marshall; Katrin Solhdju; Mike Gibson


Portrait of the French psychiatrist Jacques-Joseph Moreau de Tours.


Self-experimentation has a long tradition; even helping Australian physician Barry Marshall win a Nobel Prize. Back in the 80s he was trying to prove certain bacteria cause stomach ulcers and cancer. He couldn’t get any results from infecting animals, so he decided the next best option would be to use himself…

Barry - I did drink the bacteria; a few tablespoons full, not very much. And it didn't really... well actually it's not published yet so I won't tell you what it tasted like. It wasn't too bad! So then I was just waiting to see what would happen. About five days later, I woke up and ran into the bathroom, started throwing up. And I was vomiting for about three days. The endoscopy was done and sure enough, I had millions of these bacteria. So that answered this question, it said: healthy people with nothing wrong with them could catch this bacteria and then get inflammation in the stomach called gastritis. So that was then the soil upon which an ulcer would form later in life.

This is one of the most famous examples of self-experimentation - winning Barry and his collaborator Robin Warren the 2005 Nobel Prize in Medicine - but we’re going to hear many others during our tour through the history of self-experimentation. Medical historian Katrin Solhdju told Phil Sansom that the idea goes way back, but started to become important to European science around the 18th Century...

Katrin - We can identify three traditions of self experimentation in the history of science, and more particularly in the history of medicine.

Phil - What's the first one?

Katrin - The self experimenter in this case is convinced that before you can start experimenting on other people with something that might be toxic, you should actually take the responsibility and be the one to try it on yourself first. At the end of the 18th century, there are big debates all over Europe about the legitimacy of experimenting, for example, on prisoners, which was something that had been done for a while. And so self experimentation, at least in a lot of cases, is also a stance against experimenting on these kinds of populations.

Phil - Who specifically is telling people: stop experimenting on these vulnerable people like prisoners; you should experiment on yourself?

Katrin - It's a Viennese doctor called Anton Storck, who was actually the first one to propose an actual procedure that consisted of four steps. The first step would be, as we still have it today, the chemical description of an element of nature; mainly those were plants at the time. The second step would be to experiment on animals; and then a phase of self-experimentation before actually experimenting on other people, so before going to the phase that today we would call clinical experimentation.

Phil - Okay, that's your first tradition. What's the second one?

Katrin - What we might want to call romantic self-experimentation. People that, at the end of the 18th century, were linked to what is now known as the romantic circles. One of their convictions was that there was one kind of principle that went throughout the entire whole of nature. And so experimenting on oneself could also teach one something about the organisation of the cosmos or of nature.

Phil - It sounds like you're talking about something that's almost poetic, and then even approaching on spirituality?

Katrin - Yes, it is. And they experimented on themselves for this. There is a kind of heroic figure, or strange figure in this, who was called Ritter. He looked into the sun for so long directly, he actually hurt his eyes in bad ways. But there is at least one third important tradition of self experimentation, where the object of research couldn't be accessed through anything else but through introspection, observing oneself. For example, there was a French psychiatrist called Jacques-Joseph Moreau ‘de Tours’ who, while actually traveling with a patient in North Africa, discovered hashish; and exported the drug, which didn't exist in Europe at the time; and then founded a kind of movement of self experimentation to, what was his conviction at least, render more clear what his psychiatric patients were going through.

Phil - Whatever reason people had for experiments on themselves, did it - do you think - more often go right and was helpful, or more often go wrong?

Katrin - I think that's quite undecided. There are self experiments which led to Nobel prizes in medicine, even in the 20th century; there are other self experiments who maybe were a little bit either dangerous or didn't bring any results. But I don't think it is really linked to the fact that those were self experiments. It's just the same thing for any kind of experiment, which always carries the risk of going wrong or not bringing any interesting results.

Phil - I wanted to ask you as well: you've been saying the word ‘he’ a lot, and based on talking to people, it does seem like almost all of these anecdotes are about men. Do you think that's because historically, a lot of scientists working in these fields were male, or is there something in the male ego - I don't know - that makes you want to do this kind of heroic thing, if that's why you're doing it?

Katrin - From the 18th and 19th century, there simply weren't any women scientists at the time. We can regret it, but we can really change it. This of course changed during the 20th century. The interest in maybe becoming a hero through this kind of act might play a role there. But then of course there is maybe something else that might play a role as well, and that is which kind of self experimentation is actually rendered public.

Phil - Do people still experiment on themselves, or has this kind of thing mostly died out?

Katrin - Nowadays it's something that is sort of off the record. Of course they can be publicised, but it's not something that can be recognised directly, at least within the scientific community. Except for, of course, it bringing about an incredible result that then can no longer be ignored.

These practices certainly did continue, in a form, well into the 20th century. Mike Gibson is former physician for the Royal Air Force who recalls how often it happened...

Mike - We tended to do experiments on ourselves for two main reasons: firstly to make sure that the apparatus was working properly, so that when we moved on to our colleagues, we could be sure that we were not going to waste an exposure or a run; and secondly, so that when you were persuading one of your colleagues to take part in one of your unpleasant experiments, you could turn around and say, “well, I've done it, it's not too bad, I'm still here!” One particular nasty experiment was to instrument someone with an esophageal temperature probe, an auditory canal probe, a rectal probe, and a radio pill, jumping into a hot bath at 42 celsius until their deep body temperature reached 38 and a half, and then jumping into a cold bath until their deep body temperature approached 35. And that was unpleasant... the first subject complained of an intense feeling of tumbling head over heels. I'm not sure how much it would be allowed now, particularly as most experiments have to go through an ethics committee, which we didn't have in those days.


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