Doctors Tortured Each Other In Some Strange Ways To Test Anesthesia

C'mon, doc. There was no need to squeeze him THERE.
Doctors Tortured Each Other In Some Strange Ways To Test Anesthesia

In 1898, doctors came up with a new method of anesthesia: injecting cocaine directly into the spine. Some early experiments by August Bier proved promising, with patients feeling no pain during surgery and yet remaining conscious. Unfortunately, they suffered pain and vomiting afterward. He needed to experiment further.

Like so many scientists, Bier used himself as a test subject. One night in August, this doctor named August had his assistant (also named August) inject cocaine solution into his spine. This turned out terribly. The assistant, August Hildebrandt, spilled most of the cocaine, resulting in no pain relief whatever. Hildebrandt pricked and sliced his boss, and Bier felt it every time. Plus, the clumsy injection had spilled so much of Bier's spinal fluid that he stood no chance of participating in a round 2.

Round 2 therefore would have Hildebrandt as the test subject. Bier documented the experiment in detail, writing about it all impartially, but from exactly what followed, it's easy to imagine he was taking revenge on his assistant for his incompetence. 

Seven minutes after injecting, Bier stabbed Hildebrandt's thigh with a separate needle. Hildebrandt felt pressure but not pain. Then Bier tickled his foot, which Hildebrandt couldn't feel at all. A minute later, he moved on to slicing (Hildebrandt still felt nothing) and then introducing "a large, blunt, curved needle into the soft tissues of the thigh," which still "produced no pain."

At 13 minutes, Bier pressed a burning cigar to Hildebrandt's legs, which does not sound like a very measured method of applying heat. He moved back to tickling, then pinched him below the nipples. Then, at 20 minutes, he took to plucking out the man's pubic hair. Again, we know pain was the goal here, but there was surely a more controlled way of applying it. In fact, the notes fail to even mention up to this point that Hildebrandt was fully nude, but of course he was, and Bier next exploited this setup by pulling and squeezing Hildebrandt's testicles. He also whacked his assistant's shin with an iron hammer, which threatened long-term damage even absent immediate pain. 

This is all sounds a bit more like an inexpert BDSM session than a formal inquiry, as does Bier's postscript: "After performing these experiments on our own bodies, we proceeded without feeling any symptoms to dine and drink wine and smoke cigars." It was a happy ending, until the cocaine wore off. Then, pain set in, and Hildebrandt was bedridden for weeks. 

For more anesthistory, check out:

We Started Studying Anesthesia After Toenail Surgery Went Horribly Wrong

You Might Wake Up During Surgery, but Don't Worry -- We Can Control Your Memory

Hanaoka Seishu Invents Painless Surgery, Can't Tell The World Because His Government Doesn't Like To Share

Top image: DocP/Wiki Commons

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