These are not examples of random crackpot medical experiments. All of the following were performed by well-respected, influential physicians and researchers during their time.
What we're trying to say is that these individuals have thrown down the proverbial gauntlet of badassery, making most of modern-day medicine look really, really lame.
#6. Drinking Cholera
Max Josef von Pettenkofer, desperate to give people something other than the absurdity of his name to talk about, decided that he could get a whole lot of mileage out of being a batshit scientist.
Pettenkofer was a late 19th century medical researcher and public health advocate who developed the very first large-scale pure-water system in Munich, Germany. And even though that's probably very impressive, from now until the day you die, if you remember anything about Pettenkofer, it will be this: Max Josef von Pettenkofer drank a steaming cup of cholera bacteria that he cultured from a patient's diarrhea bombs.
"Five bucks, and I'll drink that poop. Dare me? I'm gonna do it anyway."
Fun fact: The patient was dead.
You see, famous German physician and future Nobel laureate Robert Koch had just discovered the actual bacterium that causes cholera. But Pettenkofer suspected that the bacterium alone wouldn't cause cholera; he believed that other environmental conditions had to be in place for the disease to really make an impact. He noticed that the people who came down with cholera weren't just coming into contact with the disease -- they also rarely washed, had poor hygiene and drank filthy groundwater. Pettenkofer was a hygienist, after all, and basically was using the whole cholera experiment as a way of suggesting to people, "Hey, let's just try being less shitty, in general." He named his little adventure his "experimentum crucis," wisely leaving room for a sequel, Experimentum 2: Crucis Control, should the original do well in the scientific community.
After downing the cholera cocktail, Pettenkofer began to get violently ill within a day (SURPRISE!). However, the tough bastard never came down with a full-blown case of cholera. While experts today interpret his symptoms as having been a mild case of the disease, at the time Pettenkofer thought his experience was a pretty successful "FUCK YOU!" to Koch and his supporters and certainly a strong case for his "Let's Be Cleaner and Less Shitty" argument.
Pettenkofer: Equal parts Hemingway and the more horrifying aspects of what they make you do in hell.
Koch's theory eventually won out. But people thought that Pettenkofer was probably on to something with the whole "Hey, maybe we shouldn't drink the groundwater?" thing. He ended up on a stamp. So, if you want to be immortalized on a stamp, you know ... drink cholera? There's not really a good lesson to pull from this experiment.
#5. Severing One's Own Nerves
Let us introduce you to Dr. Henry Head (1861-1940), an English neurologist (obviously), who conducted groundbreaking research on sensory nerve damage and repair.
Via Wikimedia Commons
Sure, why not? This upstanding gentleman seems reasonable enough ...
Some of Head's most important research involved slicing open his own arm, severing its nerves and tracking the slow return of sensation over the course of years.
Redacted: Raging nutjob.
Head observed that patients with peripheral nerve damage could experience their sensation of touch returning gradually over time. However, because the only data were patients' experiences, and since these patients could not articulate their experiences in detailed medical jargon, Head found it difficult to track their recoveries in a consistent, reliable way.
As he put it, "It soon became obvious that many observed facts would remain inexplicable without experimentation carried out more carefully and for a longer period than was possible with a patient, however willing, whose ultimate object in submitting himself to observation is the cure of his disease."
In other words, "They don't want to be experimented on -- they want to be fucking healed."
And even though it could be argued that, as a doctor, curing the disease should also have been his only goal, Dr. Head had other plans. Crazy plans. Head had another physician cut open his left arm in order to sever its radial and external nerves. He then tracked his experiences for the next five years ("Hey, my patients were right after all; this does hurt like a son of a bitch!"). Between 1903 and 1907 Head had 167 examinations with his physician colleague Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, each lasting many hours.
During the examinations, Head would look away as Rivers would systematically apply various forms of pressure and temperature all over his arm, mapping out what (if anything) Head would report feeling. The probing tools ranged from the puppy-dog-tail-esque (e.g. cotton wool) to something straight out of Mordor (e.g. the tip of a soldering iron).
"Ah, FUCK, it hurts! Why did I think it wouldn't?!"
Through his research, Head established two anatomically separate sympathetic nervous systems, "protopathic" and "epicritic," which regenerate at different rates following injury. The protopathic system is all-or-nothing (you can feel whether something is touching you, but you can't tell exactly where or with how much pressure), whereas the epicritic system is more sensitive (it is responsible for how we normally experience touch).
Now, here's where it gets weird.
Head's discovery of these separate nervous systems fit nicely with contemporary evolutionary theories about the human nervous system having separate primitive and more developed functions. Which was nice and all, but didn't really teach us anything new; it just confirmed other theories. So, Rivers notched up experimentation on this theory to frat house proportions, when he poked the tip of Head's penis with a needle and repeatedly dipped it into water that alternated between cold and scalding hot.
Via Wikimedia Commons
Which did wonders for his marriage, as you can tell from their uncontainable excitement in this picture.
Head experienced a great deal of pain (duh) but, unlike every other part of his body, the pain at the tip of his penis (called the "glans") more resembled the protopathic (all-or-nothing) sensations he experienced in his left arm when the nerves were severed. This made good evolutionary sense to Rivers insofar as the male sexual anatomy would be expectedly less neuroanatomically evolved than the rest of the body.
And that's where the term "dickhead" came from.
#4. Jumping From an Airplane at 40,000 Feet
Meet William Randolph Lovelace II (1907-1965), American army surgeon and lieutenant, who researched bodily effects of high-altitude flight.
"The biggest surprise of my life was living long enough to go gray."
You see, it was discovered "the hard way" that, above 35,000 feet, pilots who had to eject from planes would pass out because of the lack of oxygen.
It's 1943, during WWII. As part of a set of experiments to study new oxygen equipment, Lovelace bails out of a B-17 bomber at over 40,000 feet. He is knocked unconscious when the parachute opens, and gets frostbite on one of his hands after his glove is torn away. So he just floats, unconscious, down to the ground, and for this experiment, he is awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. And that's how we learned that we need to develop oxygen masks for high-altitude flights.
Other experiments included "Don't forget your parachute" and "You'll need a plane."
That's a lesson, it should be pointed out, that didn't warrant an additional experiment by a scientist. Lovelace watched wave after wave of pilots jump out of a plane at 35,000 feet and lose consciousness, and instead of immediately concluding "We should develop oxygen masks," he said, "Bullshit, those World War II-era fighter pilots are a bunch of pussies. This job calls for a motherfucking scientist." It was only after he jumped out of a plane himself that he accepted the previous pilots' lack of consciousness. Still not sure if that makes him the best or worst scientist in the world, but the bottom line is that we're terrified of him.
He went on to work for NASA, though, probably as a rocket puncher.