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When the guinea pig is the researcher

The early stages of medical research are generally performed on animals, but humans must ultimately take over from guinea pigs to determine a medication or procedure's safety and efficacy in clinical trials. Then comes the question of "Who goes first?" And as Lawrence K. Altman wrote in his book by that title, it is often the researchers themselves.

Many of the most famous examples of self-experimentation involve trying new medications or immunizations, but, as Altman explains, self-experimenters come from almost every medical specialty, and most are not widely known.

Take the young German surgeon Werner Forssmann, who risked his career in the 1920s when he secretly inserted a catheter tube through a vein in the crease of his elbow into his own heart _ an organ that until then had seemed inaccessible, and even taboo to many doctors. Forssmann's technique revolutionized treatment for heart disease.

Progress in the field of anesthesiology owed much to doctors and chemists who were willing to be the first to sniff the gas. In the early 19th century, Humphry Davy, an avid poet and chemist and director of the British Medical Pneumatic Institution, discovered the painkilling properties of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) by trying it on himself _ sometimes three or four times a day. After finding out that the gas had certain pleasurable side effects, he apparently shared it with friends, including the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

To understand outbreaks of food poisoning, in 1913 Dr. Marshall A. Barber, an American government employee based in Manila, visited a farm that had reported repeated occurrences of "milk poisoning," particularly when the weather was warm. Barber experimented with refrigerating milk and leaving it at room temperature, where it grew staphylococcal bacteria. He repeatedly drank the infected milk, and repeatedly suffered the consequences with acute stomach upset.

Jonas Salk, whose polio vaccine saved tens of thousands of children's lives in the 1950s, apparently told conflicting stories about whether he tried the vaccine on himself. He did, however, inject his own children.