What would you do for science? These scientists gave everything you had to achieve some of the most important advances we know today. From guzzling bacteria to dueling for mathematics, these are some of the craziest stunts in the history of the profession.
Everyone told him that bacteria couldn't survive in the human stomach. But Barry Marshall, an Australian doctor who had spent his childhood building fireworks and operating on his pet dog, had other ideas. Marshall knew that bacteria caused ulcers, and he had watched his patients make full recoveries after antibiotic therapy. When he tried to publish his findings, however, the medical fraternity laughed him out of their conferences.
So Barry Marshall . In just days, the crippling symptoms of gastroenteritis began to kick in, and finally confirmed that he was right—and in trouble. Marshall biopsied his own stomach, isolated the bacteria, wolfed down some antibiotics, and went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology.
In 1929, heart surgery was still in its infancy, and physicians struggled to treat cardiac patients invasively. Werner Forssmann suspected that he could reach the heart by snaking a hollow tube through his patients' veins, but colleagues in Eberswald, Germany, told him that the procedure would undoubtedly prove fatal.
Forssmann begged to differ, and to prove it.
A nurse agreed to sneak him sterile supplies as long as he promised to perform the procedure on her instead of on himself. Forssmann agreed, anesthetized his nurse, and, in one of the greatest switcheroos in medical history, cut into his own arm and blindly guided the catheter into his heart. Triumphant and still alive, Forssmann hobbled down to the X-Ray lab to show off his handiwork.
Years later, after he promised never to knock out his nurse and perform surgery on himself ever, ever again, he received the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Not every brazen scientist is ultimately vindicated. During the yellow fever epidemic of 1793, medical student set out to prove that malaria is not contagious. He failed.
Ffirth smeared infected vomit into his open wounds, rubbed it into his eyes, and felt just fine, thank you very much. He went on to sample urine and blood from malaria patients but never developed the disease.
We now know that malaria is actually quite contagious. So, why didn't Ffirth get it? Some suspect that Ffirth obtained his vomit from late-stage malaria patients who were no longer contagious, while others maintain that Ffirth failed to inject the infected blood directly into his bloodstream. So ol' Stubbins got lucky—if you call being remembered as that scientist who rubbed vomit into his eyes lucky.
Thor Heyerdahl was the Norwegian Indiana Jones, an adventurer who studied biology, geography, and botany, and embarked on wild expeditions to confirm his archaeological theories. And then he sailed across the Pacific Ocean in a homemade reed raft.
Heyerdahl had come to suspect that ancient people once sailed the high seas in tiny reed boats to trade their wares—and their DNA. Mainstream anthropologists said it couldn't be done, which was Heyerdahl's cue to embark on the ultimate DIY project. In 1947, Heyerdahl and his team bent reeds into a bare-bones boat, and together voyaged 4300 miles across the Pacific Ocean in 101 days just to prove that they could.
Later, in 2011, genetic evidence . However, most mainstream anthropologists still maintain that linguistic evidence suggests otherwise, and that the sea stunt had proved nothing.
A Danish nobleman who employed midget jesters and owned a pet moose, was an eccentric and irascible astronomer, and what he loved most was arguing about math. At a dinner party in 1566, Brahe sparked a heated debate over a certain mathematical formula. One guest dared to disagree with him and, before anyone could stop him, the outraged Brahe challenged the man to a rapier duel.
Brahe was a deft mathematician but a clumsy swordsman. And so, in the name of mathematics, he lost the bridge of his nose to a faster fencer. Brahe went on to exploit many midgets and explore the cosmos as a famous astronomer, but he did so wearing a prosthetic nose made of precious metals.
Good surgery demands great anesthesia. August Bier, a German physician, resolved to develop a better anesthetic technique back in 1898. He theorized that he could inject cocaine into the space around the spinal cord and numb his patients for surgery without putting them to sleep. Although Bier did test his spinal anesthesia on a few patients, he decided that the only way he could know for sure whether it worked would be to test it out on himself.
So Bier asked an assistant to inject liquid cocaine into his spine. But when the assistant fumbled the procedure, Bier stepped in. He numbed his assistant's leg and proceeded to just to see whether or not he could feel the pain. We're not just talking light pinches and slaps—we're talking cigar burns and iron hammers to the shins.
In the end, Bier may have lost an intern, but he gained worldwide recognition as the slightly sadistic father of spinal anesthesia.
Sir Henry Head couldn't figure out how pain worked. A British neurologist with a fitting surname, Head spent the turn of the twentieth century interviewing patients with nerve damage about exactly what they felt. But after years of vague descriptions from disinterested patients, he decided it was time for a change.
Head called up a surgeon friend and ordered a portion of his radial nerve . Essential motor functions thus severed, Head began to conduct strange experiments on himself and record his pain in great detail for posterity. Head's work in pain perception ultimately earned him a knighthood and several Nobel Prize nominations, and, most importantly, peace of mind. "I shall know a great deal about pain by the time this is over," he wrote.
Ever wonder what would happen if you strapped inverted lenses to your face for over a week? , an American psychologist studying sensory perception in the 1890s, was fairly certain that the brain would correct for the imbalance and turn the world right side up. But just in case he was wrong, Stratton decided to give it a try himself.
After four days of living in an upside-down world, Stratton felt sick and disoriented, but his vision remained inverted. But by day five, his brain began turning images right side up. By day eight, he could navigate the upside-down world with ease. But when Stratton finally removed the glasses, the right-side-up world spun around him, and, until his brain adjusted, he couldn't tell his right from his left.
Stratton concluded, through headaches and a short hiatus, that the mind is capable of adjusting the senses to meet environmental pressures—and that the upside-down world is a less confusing place.
When World War II broke out in Britain, wartime rations left civilians hungry and concerned about malnourishment. , a dietician and chemist, resolved to pinpoint her nation's minimum dietary needs but didn't know where to start. So she stopped eating.
Widdowson subjected herself to a variety of starvation diets and ate only meager portions of bread, cabbage, and potatoes for several months. Then, just to prove that her minimum rations could sustain any lifestyle, the starving scientist hiked trails and climbed mountains nearly every day. Widdowson's careful records of her overall health throughout the regiment ultimately formed the backbone of Britain's wartime diet.
likes robots. A lot. A British scientist and professor of cybernetics, Warwick felt that robotic research was falling to the wayside. and so, naturally, he set off to become the world's first cyborg.
Warwick's initial experiments as a cyborg were not terribly ambitious. In 1998, he had an RFID chip implanted into his arm to interface with simple computers, turn on lights, and open electronic doors. But by 2002, Warwick had gone full robot. With electronics, surgery, and pure fearlessness, he tested whether his nervous system could integrate with a neural interface, and he even tried to electronically relay his emotions to a fellow cyborg recruit—his wife.
Although the entire project sounds like a dystopia waiting to happen, it's a relief to see that even in our generation, scientists continue to design wacky experiments that push the limits. Research is meant to be risky, transgressive, and unsettling, and Warwick reminds us that there are still scientists out there who would probably duel to the death to prove a theorem.