Home > applied science, brain, careers in science, Experiment, science impact, Uncategorized > Self-experimentation – Scientists treating themselve as guinea pigs [from Oscillatory Thoughts: Sir Henry Head’s self-experimentation]

Self-experimentation – Scientists treating themselve as guinea pigs [from Oscillatory Thoughts: Sir Henry Head’s self-experimentation]

Oscillatory Thoughts: Sir Henry Head’s self-experimentation: a great post on a long-standing but little known tradition in science – especially physiology and psychology – experimenting on one’s self, usually to do unpleasant and excruciating things that might not pass an ethics committee!

The great evolutionary theorist, JBS Haldane, was famous for this sort of thing. From a New Scientist story:

JBS Haldane’s smoking ear

One self-experimenter whose work had long-term personal consequences was the polymath JBS Haldane.

Haldane wanted to build on work done by his father, John Scott Haldane, on the physiology of working Navy divers in the early 20th century. But whereas Haldane senior restricted himself to observation and measurement, his son took a more direct approach, repeatedly putting himself in a decompression chamber to investigate the physiological effects of various levels of gases.

Haldane was motivated by concern for the welfare of sailors in disabled submarines, and his work led to a greatly improved understanding of nitrogen narcosis, as well as the safe use of various gases in breathing equipment. But he paid a high price, regularly experiencing seizures as a result of oxygen poisoning – one resulting in several crushed vertebrae.

He also suffered from burst eardrums, but he was sanguine about the damage. “The drum generally heals up,” he said, adding, “if a hole remains in it, although one is somewhat deaf, one can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question, which is a social accomplishment.”

From the blogpost cited at top:

Following in this fine scientific tradition is the brilliant and influential neurologist (not to mention appropriately named) Sir Henry Head. If that’s not a proper 1960s punny, alliterative, Stan Lee name for a neurologist, I don’t know what is. Anyway, the good Dr. Head published quite a ground-breaking article with his collaborator WHR Rivers in the journal Brain in 1908 titled A Human Experiment in Nerve Division. In this article, Head and Rivers sought to examine the course of recovery of somatosensation after peripheral nerve damage. It was known from observing patients with such damage that the touch senses often recover after peripheral nerve damage, but because the patients weren’t properly trained, they couldn’t give an adequate account of their own recovery. As they say:

“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.”So Head’s solution? Cut open his arm and sever some nerves! Dr. Head enlisted the assistance of another doctor to surgically sever some of the peripheral nerves in his left arm and hand.

I recall reading a case report by the late (and great) OJ Grusser where he injected the dissociative anaesthetic and glutamergic antagonist ketamine into his own eyeball to study its effects on optokinetic nystagmus (the tracking of moving objects when the head is stationary). The ketamine would inactivate transmission in the extra-ocular muscles, reducing reflexive tracking eye movements to moving objects. (I can’t locate the reference at the moment – my recollection is that it was in a book chapter). Not an experiment to be undertaken lightly!

  1. September 13, 2010 at 2:48 am

    Thanks for the write-up!

    That’s a really cool story about Haldane. My post got a lot of people offering very interesting self-experimentation stories. There’s already one book out there on the topic, but it seems like a very interesting topic that merits more conversation!

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