5 Gruesome Experiments Scientists Tested (On Themselves)

Some brave scientists get around the ethics board by using themselves as guinea pigs.
5 Gruesome Experiments Scientists Tested (On Themselves)

Science can be a frustrating field. You come up with some sick-ass experiment that's gonna totally wreck up the knowledge space, and heeeere come the professional party poopers known as the ethics board to ruin all your fun. Ah, but some brave scientists have gotten around such trivialities by using themselves as guinea pigs. Much like art, sometimes one must suffer for their science.

Multiple Scientists Have Stabbed Themselves In Tender Places With Huge Needles

Sir Isaac Newton is kind of a big deal. He invented calculus, defined the laws of motion, did all that work explaining gravity, the list goes on. He also did some stuff with optics. He was famously associated with that trick they show you in grade school wherein you shine light through a prism and a rainbow comes out the other side. He's even the reason rainbows are traditionally depicted as having seven colors, even though they contain all the colors, being rainbows and all.

Newton's greatest optical obsession was finding out how light entered the human eye. And yes, we can safely say that it was an "obsession," judging by the lengths he went to understand it. Presumably after crossing his heart and hoping to die, he inserted a bodkin (a large blunt needle) into his tear duct, between the bone of his eye socket and his eyeball, then wiggled it around to see what effect it would have.

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Sir Isaac Newton

Screaming would be the effect.

This voluntary proto-Jigsaw trap obviously blurred his vision and made him see different colors, like when you, say, press a little bit on your eyeball with anything that is not a giant needle. Of course, science demands replication, so Newton repeated the experiment several times under different conditions to test a few things, like what colors can be seen in well-lit rooms versus dark ones. We'd say it's what any sane scientist would do, but the whole notion of sane science went out the window several sentences ago.

Newton didn't have a monopoly on scientific self-harm, though. Chances are that when all those pizza rolls finally come to collect and your heart explodes, the pain that drops you to the floor will be coming from your left arm. Phenomena like this, in which the body part that's failing isn't where the pain is felt, are called referred pain, and it wasn't well understood for a long time. So in the 1930s, scientists Thomas Lewis and Jonas Kellgren decided to check it out.

Their method was as simple as it was horrifying: In order to determine which body parts would refer pain to which other body parts, they took a long syringe, filled it with saline, and then injected it into various parts of their bodies. That might not seem like a big deal, but salt water will fuck you up right quick if you inject it into the right/wrong places, like your muscle tissue. Which is exactly what they did, causing short bursts of extreme pain. When this didn't yield the data they needed, they decided to move on ... to stabbing needles right into their bones. There was a problem, however (OK, many problems): The hypodermic needle they'd been using wasn't strong enough to penetrate bone. Not to be robbed of their chance at agonizing glory, they improvised and used a metal spike made of sharpened stainless steel wire to pierce Kellgren's shin bone.

Believe it or not, this obvious excuse to engage in some collegiate S&M actually proved scientifically useful. Thanks to Kellgren and Lewis' weird kinks, doctors now have a better road map of where pain is felt and what it might mean. And to think, the only good that's ever come from our sex lives is fewer baristas getting yelled at.

George Stratton Turned His World Upside-Down (And Not Metaphorically)

Scientist George Stratton became fascinated with how our retinas invert the images we see. Scientists already knew this occurred, but they weren't exactly sure why. Stratton believed it had to do with how our brains alter inverted images to conform to our perception of the world, while others thought it had something to do with the way our eyes moved. Either way, Stratton decided to make and wear glasses which would show the world as his retina did: upside-down.

5 Gruesome Experiments Scientists Tested (On Themselves)
Psychological Review

"Hey, -4 eyes!"

Stratton tested his theories over multiple disorienting experiments. He wore that ridiculous headgear, which inverted up and down as well as left and right, for eight days. Initially, he tested both eyes, but after the strain proved too great and he got tired of stubbing his toes on what appeared to be the ceiling, he switched to a monocular version, whereby one eye was blacked out with a blinder covered in black pepper. The device was removed at night and his eyes were bound shut so that he wouldn't reorient, hopefully with one of those frilly sleep masks old-timey movie stars wore.

Stratton claimed to experience mind-bending perception disruption, resulting in what he described as an "out-of-body experience" whenever his sight did not match up with his sense of feeling. After the experiment ended, he began to see the world "normally" again, although his definition of normality is obviously not ours.

Too Many Scientists Have Eaten Shit

Back in the early 20th century, the skin disease Pellagra ravaged the Southern states of the U.S. as effectively as deep-frying and racism combined. It was similar to leprosy, causing sufferers' skin to flake off and bleed, with a side of diarrhea and dementia for kicks. Its fatality rate was about 40 percent, and by 1912, South Carolina had reported 30,000 cases. So the government tasked Joseph Goldberger with finding out why all these people were turning into grayscale cases.

The first thing Goldberger noticed was that prisoners seemed to be especially susceptible to the disease, but prison staff were not, which seemed to contradict the popular idea that it was caused by a virus or bacteria. After ruling out biological class warfare, he concluded that some sort of dietary deficiency was the culprit. He of course then developed a methodical study of the prisoners' diet to determine what was lacking.

Just kidding, he ate their various excretions.

How this was supposed to diagnose a dietary deficiency isn't clear, but as always, we suspect it was secretly a messed up sex thing. Especially since his wife begged to get in on it. She described the time they spent eating the feces, snot, skin lesions, scabs, and urine of the prisoners (during what they called "filth parties") as the time in their marriage when they were the closest. Certainly, debilitating bloating and diarrhea -- which was the result of their experiments -- will do that for a relationship. Alas, they failed to contract pellagra, proving that it wasn't transmitted by bodily fluids at all. Turns out it was a lack of niacin, as confirmed by other people doing normal science.

Yellow fever's symptoms include fever (right there in the name), headache, chills, bleeding from the eyes and mouth, skin blisters, black vomit, and other things not usually seen outside of an Exorcist movie. Some scientists of the time believed the disease wasn't contagious, among them Jean Louis Genevieve Guyon. Because things were done hard back in the day, Guyon took a sweaty shirt from a man who had died of yellow fever and wore it for 24 hours. Then he injected himself in both arms with pus from the dead man's blisters. A few weeks after that, infuriated by his good health, Guyon donned the clothes of a patient so recently dead that they were still warm from the man's body heat (and still soaked in his vomit). When that was still not enough to sicken him, he climbed into the man's poop-filled bed, rolled around in it, and smeared it all over his body. He stayed like that for six and a half hours (because seven is obviously when that starts to get weird). And after all that, it was reported that "M. Guyon enjoyed uninterrupted health during the performance of these experiments." Presumably that refers only to the physical and not mental side of things.

Then there's Giovanni Battista Grassi, who was poking around in some dead guy's intestines looking for ... something (maybe his car keys?), when he accidentally stumbled upon hundreds of tapeworms and their little tapeworm eggs. Intrigued by his discovery, Grassi quickly spooned out a decent portion of that happy little poop-covered family and fucking ate them. It wasn't temporary insanity -- at least, not in the traditional sense. Grassi hoped that by doing this, he could determine whether humans could be infected with tapeworms by eating the tapeworm-infested shit of a previous carrier. It seems that was something that science was "out" on.

Of course, Grassi was still a scientist, and the method hadn't totally bailed on the madness. In order to know if his experiment would be a success, he first needed to ensure that he wasn't already infected. So he inspected his own poop every day, in the meantime storing the tapeworms in some fresh poop which he apparently had lying around. After enough time had passed, Grassi mustered up all the courage and presumably ketchup he had and downed the little bastards.

22 days later, after once again meticulously examining his own poop under a microscope, Grassi happily reported he was now infected with tapeworms. Then he sat down to pen a research paper about the time he ate shit for science.

Joseph Barcroft Tested Chemical Weapons On Himself

World War I scientists built more powerful weapons than ever before, and frontline soldiers unwittingly became test subjects for opposing countries' brutal research. The Geneva Protocol wasn't ratified until after the war, so chemical warfare was technically fair game. The Germans were already cranking out and deploying tons of highly noxious mustard gas, so the Allies decided they needed an effective chemical agent of their own. To that end, they built a million-dollar factory dedicated solely to pumping out shells filled with hydrocyanic acid.

Dr. Joseph Barcroft had some doubts, however. No, he wasn't worried about murdering thousands of people with horrific chemicals; he was afraid the hydrocyanic acid wouldn't kill enough people. To test his killer baby out, Barcroft locked himself in a sealed chamber and pumped it full of airborne poison. He brought along a dog, because he didn't feel quite crazy enough. He stayed in there, breathing that shit, until the dog finally keeled over dead. It only took a minute and a half to conclude what would be the saddest Fallout 3 side mission ever.

Barcroft left the chamber, reporting that he felt mostly nauseated and unfocused for a while. He also recorded "a momentary giddiness" whenever he turned his head quickly for about a year. Which, hey, sounds pretty fun! Not "worth killing a dog" fun, but we've heard of worse side effects. So did the Allies -- his experiment proved that it probably wasn't worth a million dollars to grant the enemy brief bouts of momentary giddiness. At least not when whippits are so cheap and easily accessible.

Regine Gries Has Let Herself Get Bitten By 200,000 Bedbugs

Regine Gries spends her weekends getting chomped on by bedbugs so we don't have to (unless we do something ridiculous, like buy a chair from Craigslist). She has done this for 11 damn years. Starting in 2006, Gries and her husband Gerhard set to work developing bedbug deterrent chemicals. To test whether their inventions are more intriguing to bedbugs than human flesh, she literally rolls up her sleeves and lets a thousand of the little fuckers go to town on her exposed epidermis. She takes several Plexiglas cups swarming with insects and dumps them right onto her arm. She does this every Saturday, because that's obviously a weekend thing.

5 Gruesome Experiments Scientists Tested (On Themselves)
Dr. Regine Gries

Saturday night's alright for biting, Get a little research in

Of course, no human being simply wakes up one day and decides to go elbow-deep into an entomological slumber party. They had previously tried using chickens and guinea pigs, but the chickens' blood was poisonous to the little critters, and they quickly grew tired of drugging and shaving guinea pigs each and every week. It turned out that Gries' body was uniquely equipped for such endeavors, suffering only some itchiness and swelling for two hours after a bite. Her husband, meanwhile, saw his limbs double in size after the same treatment, so Gries became the sole human sacrifice.

And you can't say she's not an enthusiastic one. In the past decade, she's suffered over 200,000 bedbug bites. We would certainly call that "impressive," but we're not sure exactly what tone we would use while saying it.

Jordan Breeding also writes for Paste Magazine, the Twitter, himself, and with a dirty spray can in various back alleys.

Do some weird, disgusting science s--t in the privacy of your own home with seaweed experiments or you can GO HARD ABOUT YOUR SCIENCE.

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