DIY Scientists

Wednesday September 13, 2017 Written by Suzi

full screen chemcraft

Many of the rather disgusting things you're about to read about have actually ended up saving thousands of lives. Bioethicist Professor Ian Kerridge was recently interviewed for ABC Radio National’s Science Friction and we couldn’t resist bringing you some highlights from his list of top DIY scientists throughout history.  

1900: a bit of dirt never hurt anyone

In a desperate attempt to find out whether yellow fever was being spread by contagion or by mozzies, some US soldiers were enlisted, and ostensibly volunteered, to put their bodies on the line for research purposes. Although as Professor Kerridge explained, it may have been more a case of them being voluntold, considering that “They were made to sleep with corpses of people who had yellow fever, eat their faeces, and cover themselves with sweat from the diseased."

While the soldiers were rolling around in the body fluids of dead people, the US army bacteriologist Major Walter Reed – who invented the rather unfriendly experiments – also roped in two colleagues, Jesse Lazear and James Carroll, to expose themselves to masses of mosquitoes. What could go wrong?

Well the soldiers survived, but Carroll and Lazear both got yellow fever and Lazear died from it. It sparked a breakthrough in understanding how the epidemic disease was being transmitted, which led to vaccinations and mosquito controls. We don’t know what happened to Major Walter Reed, but we give the man a 'Best Delegator of 1900' award. What a guy.

1929: When you stick a catheter into your own heart

Have you ever seen an anatomy drawing of a tube being threaded through the jugular vein of a horse and into its heart, and thought: why say, that’d be a cool thing to try out? On myself?

That was the approximate thought process of German doctor Werner Forssmann. He laid the foundations for our modern-day cardiac catheterisation procedures (used worldwide to diagnose and treat heart conditions) when he stuck a catheter into the brachial vein of his own arm and pushed it along until he thought it was in his heart. Luckily for him, he had a good sense of direction and the doctor won a Nobel Prize for his discovery.

1949: The first lithium guinea pigs

The first guinea pigs for lithium were actually guinea pigs. Then an Australian psychiatrist tried the element out on himself, before moving on to his patients. Dr John Cade had been looking for a biological basis to mental illness and started out by injecting urine from unwell soldiers into guinea pigs. He figured out that a compound called uric acid was triggering manic behaviour, which was alleviated by a dose of lithium. Other researchers built on his work, focussing on dosage control, and now the element is used to treat severe bipolar.

Read about more DIY scientists in Genelle Weule’s ABC blog, A History of Risk and Discovery and/or listen to the riveting Science Friction episode, You Do It To Yourself, presented by Natasha Mitchell.