Despite a physician's solemn duty to do no harm, total disregard for a patient's safety and continued existence have occasionally proved to be the missing ingredients in significant medical breakthroughs.
#3. Leprosy Is Treated With a Drug That Causes Birth Defects
Leprosy is the closest people get to becoming zombies without actually eating anyone. Not only does it rot your flesh from your bones like old lettuce, it is also so painful that it relieves you of the burden of getting any sleep, because once the universe decides to make you a leper, it doesn't want you to miss a single minute of it.
"Oh yeah, you've gotta be awake for this."
In 1964, Dr. Jacob Sheskin was presented with one such unlucky fellow. At the time, the accepted treatment for leprosy was still "hollow caves," but Sheskin decided to give the man a sedative to help him sleep. However, what he gave him was thalidomide, a drug that had been internationally banned because of its unfortunate side effect of producing truly horrific birth defects. Precisely what compelled Sheskin to prescribe a stupendously illegal drug has been lost to the sands of time (we assume he just didn't feel comfortable writing the man a prescription for a bottle of whiskey and a .38).
Shockingly, after three days of shoving doses of thalidomide between the ragged flaps of skin hanging over his teeth, not only was the patient well-rested, but his leprosy had virtually disappeared. By completely ignoring both the law and the oaths of his profession, Sheskin had accidentally tripped over the first effective treatment for leprosy, which is still being used today.
Sheskin (bald, center), pictured here with several other people he regularly dosed with illegal drugs.
#2. Gastroenterology Is Created by Shoving Random Things into a Man's Stomach Hole
In 1822, Alexis St. Martin was shot in the gut with a musket from about a foot away, blasting a fist-sized hole in his food bjorn and exposing his internal organs like a busted sack of hamburgers.
Man, is anyone else hungry for oatmeal?
Dr. William Beaumont did his best to mend the damage, a phrase here meaning "He crammed a bunch of shit into St. Martin's gaping stomach canyon to see what would happen." Seriously. He stuck chicken, beef, and a dozen oysters in there for hours at a time before removing them with a string to see how well they'd been digested.
While it may seem like mescaline-addled boredom, Beaumont's "experimenting" turned out to be groundbreaking work in digestive medicine, as it led him to discover the component (hydrochloric acid) that enables the stomach to digest food. For his work, Beaumont is now considered the father of gastric physiology.
We assume he eventually tried to stuff his head in there.
#1. Neuropsychology Is Created by Lobotomizing an Epileptic
In 1933, Henry Molaison fell off his bike and smashed his head hard enough to induce two decades' worth of intractable epilepsy. This is bad even by today's standards, but back then the quality of available treatment was such that his head might as well have just bounced off the ground and exploded.
Molaison, seen here in a rare moment of not being shit on by life.
After years of seizures, Molaison became a patient of Dr. William Beecher Scoville. Scoville was able to identify the damaged parts of Molaison's brain as the entorhinal cortex and hippocampus. Then, in keeping with the style of medicine practiced at the time, Scoville chopped them both the fuck out of his skull.
"Hey, gotta pass the time somehow."
Technically the operation was successful, because the epilepsy was cured. However, it came with the unexpected side effect of making Molaison unable to create new memories. He spent the rest of his life living out the plot of Memento, only without the dead wife or the youngest Fratelli brother.
Scoville's brain-chopping provided the first demonstrable link between certain areas of the brain and specific neurological functions -- that is, the idea of the brain being made up of several parts instead of just one big whole. This led to the modern science of cognitive neuropsychology, and to Molaison eating Jell-O in an observation ward for the rest of his life.
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