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Self-experimentation

Caricature of Doctor and Mrs Syntax, with a party of friends, experimenting with laughing gas, 1820.

Caricature of Doctor and Mrs Syntax, with a party of friends, experimenting with laughing gas, 1820.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

The idea of doctors and scientists experimenting on themselves might seem strange, but it could save other people from dangerous procedures. It may also reveal things that another less expert person might not notice. Since experiments became an important element of science in the early modern period, many scientists and doctors have undertaken experiments on themselves to learn about the body, diseases and natural phenomena. Often these involved painful or dangerous experiences. In the 1660s, Isaac Newton examined distortions of vision by pressing his eyeball with a stick, putting it ‘betwixt my eye & [the] bone as neare to [the] backside of my eye as I could’. Experimenters in the 1700s tested the effects of new phenomena such as electricity and gases on themselves. Around 1800, the chemist Humphry Davy (1778-1829) experimented on himself with a new gas called nitrous oxide. In small amounts the gas was intoxicating, prompting its nickname of ‘laughing gas’ and a brief trend for laughing gas parties among the experimenters and their friends. Nitrous oxide ultimately turned out to be useful as a powerful anaesthetic.

Self-experimentation carried unique problems. How could an experimenter communicate his or her individual experiences to others? Would these experiences apply to everybody, or just to the individual? Early psychology presents a good example of the problems associated with self-experimentation. In the late 1800s, pioneers of psychology argued that the best way to understand the mind was through self-analysis, writing down how one's mind responded to certain conditions and influences. But many criticised the method for being unclear, and experimenters such as the Russian Ivan Pavlov argued that psychology should be founded on more ‘objective’ experiments based on measurements. To this day, medical researchers resort to self-experimentation: Barry Marshall, one of the recipients of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Medicine, infected himself with Heliobacter pylori to prove that this bacterium caused stomach ulcers.

Bibliography

L K Altman, Who Goes First? The Story of Self-Experimentation in Medicine (New York: Random House, 1987)

L Dendy and M Boring, Guinea Pig Scientists: Bold Self-Experimenters in Science and Medicine (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005)

A S Fiks, Self-Experimenters: Sources for Study, edited by P A Buelow, (Westport and London: Praeger, 2003)

J Franklin and J Sutherland, Guinea Pig Doctors: The Drama of Medical Research Through Self-Experimentation (New York: Morrow, 1984)

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