How Brave Are You?

Do you want to be more courageous? Running into a burning building to save a baby might actually be within you.

Could You Be This Selfless for Science?

Many have risked death in brave yet shocking self-experiments.

science risk
I've been reading, like many of you, about the fellow who jumped out of a capsule at a greater height than anyone before, broke the sound barrier, tumbled scarily, and landed safely. His exploits will add to scientific knowledge, potentially saving lives.

Pre-YouTube, a surprising number of other adventurous men and women performed amazing experiments on themselves. Just read Smoking Ears and Screaming Teeth:  A Celebration of Scientific Exploration and Self-Experimentation, by Trevor Norton. Norton, an Emeritus Professor at the University of Liverpool, having retired from the Chair of Marine Biology, has authored more than 150 scientific publications and books. And this one is a delight.

From early medical trials to plunges beneath the deepest of seas, scientifically-minded adventurers have used themselves to try out what would be unethical to assign to anyone else. And sometimes, the scientific community ignored their results for far too many years.

Norton is a witty and very entertaining writer. I smiled again and again as I read my electronic review copy, to the point where I ordered a hard copy for my 88-year-old father who loves nothing more than history and a good eyebrow-raising fact. Norton's style is heavily anecdotal, drawing the reader in and imparting lots of scientific background in only a few lines.

Maybe you didn't know, for example:

  • In 1804, it was believed that yellow fever, which can kill in days, was contagious. To prove otherwise, Stubbins Ffirth, a U.S. medical student, slept alongside fever patients. He inhaled their breath, and then inhaled the vapor from their vomit, and then injected and smeared the vomit into cuts on his arms. If that wasn't enough, he went on to drink their saliva and blood.
  • During a mine disaster, scientist J. S. Haldane breathed from a vent pipe full of poisonous gases. He turned blue and was able to diagnose the problem as carbonic acid. He and his son Jack also did experiments in which they endured air pressure many times the norm, causing nosebleeds, seizures, vomiting and collapsed lungs. His teeth screamed (actually an air-pocket whistling out from under a filling) during one rapid decompression.
  • Several brave doctors gave themselves what are usually sexually-transmitted diseases, syphilis and the like. Others ingested camphor or belladonna or cholera, or, as food, toasted mice and kangaroo ham (stewed mole, however, was found to be too bitter).

Here's a direct quote to demonstrate Norton's style:

In the early 1980s Barry Marshall, an Australian microbiologist, teamed up with a pathologist called Robin Warren to document the bacteria living in the human gut. They found that one species, Helicobacter pylori, was invariably present in patients suffering from duodenal ulcers and also in seventy-five per cent of those with stomach ulcers. Could it be the causative organism?

To find out, Marshall slid a tube down his throat into his stomach and removed fragments of the stomach lining. These were examined to ensure that he didn’t have either a gut infection or Helicobacter. After allowing time to let the gut wall heal he swallowed a culture of the bacterium.

He had, of course, taken precautions before doing so. Firstly, he didn’t inform the hospital ethics committee in case it refused permission and secondly, he didn’t tell his wife until after he had taken the draught. She guessed anyhow when within days he became listless and began vomiting. To add insult to self-inflicted injury, his wife informed him that his breath was ‘putrid’. A series of biopsies of his gut tissue revealed severe inflammation (gastritis) that precedes ulceration. Fortunately he cleared up the problem with an antibiotic.

Copyright (c) by Susan K. Perry

How Brave Are You?