Human Bender: The Ultimate Self-Experimenter
Last week, the Boston Skeptics’ Book Club met outside for the last time before the upcoming eight months of winter to snack on an endless variety of cookies and pasta salad and to discuss Who Goes First? The Story of Self Experimentation in Medicine by Lawrence K. Altman. This book is excellent for anyone who wants to know the history of science, because many scientists have dabbled in self-experimentation and there are a lot of interesting stories about how modern treatments came into being.
Some chapters in the book droned on a bit (the parasite chapter was rather disappointing unless you enjoy reading about the many ways scientists have ingested flukes), but the good news is that most chapters were no longer than 20 pages and they each covered a different topic, so you can skip through the boring chapters if you want to get to the good stuff.
The book went over areas of self-experimentation including: the origin of the Rabies vaccine (and how Louis Pasteur is not technically a member of the prestigious Pasteurian Club); heart surgery using a catheter (the scientist experimenting with this one had to literally fight off the x-ray tech trying to yank the catheter out); experimentation with different forms of anesthesia (including how to cure a morphine addiction with cocaine); the yellow fever experiments (and more black vomit and other bodily excretions than you can imagine); how scientists deprived themselves of nutrients to develop wartime rationing diets (and why our junk food is so fortified with vitamins); the glory days of science when lab-grade LSD was free to scientists (for research only, of course); and how scientists were able to determine the cause of food poisoning (and the unfortunate “kitten food-poisoning test”).
This book was written in the late 80’s but most of the science is still solid. You can really only tell it’s dated by the optimistic mention of an HIV vaccine being developed and ready before the year 2000.
Who Goes First? was an enjoyable read and it would actually make a great supplemental textbook for a college class because it really went through the process of science without sounding like a boring lecture about the Scientific Method. Many of these scientists were interested in the Why and How, and they viewed self-experimentation as a necessary evil to find their answers. The scientists had different reasons for why they did what they did, but the mostly boiled down to: reliability (because they could control everything in their lives); dependability (many of them had fine observational tools); the sense of adventure; developing a sense of empathy for their patients/future experimenters; self protection (if you’re in an area full of malaria, you want to be the one who has first access to the vaccine); convenience (no committees to approve, no forms to sign); and experience (in their own specific scientific field).
There are a few problems with self-experimentation though, and a big one is that it’s difficult to design an experiment with proper controls and to account for the placebo effect. In fact, some of the scientists died in vain because the data they produced did not actually prove their hypothesis. Another issue is that most of the self-experimenters were men, thus scientific facts gained from the experiments may not always be true for women. An example of this issue is in one of the later chapters where a man and woman were experimenting with loss of salt through sweating, and when they determined that women did not sweat as much as men (and therefore didn’t lose as much salt), they decided to move forward with male-only subjects, so their data was not representational of the general public. Lastly, if one is going to self-experiment, one needs to document everything and have a good, observational partner. The chapters mainly focus on the successes of self-experimenters and how lucky many of them were to elude death in their trials, but the last chapter does mention scientists who weren’t so lucky, even if they took what they thought were proper safety measures.
Next book club is on November 6th at 3pm and the location is TBD (although it probably will be near Harvard, we are ironing out some details with a place that we have in mind). We will be reading World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks. If you don’t think this book is science or skepticism related, well, it’s Halloween and zombies are relevant to almost anything. Zombies eat brains. Scientists work with brains. Skeptics use their brains. It’s a natural connection!
The book sneak preview for the meeting after the next one is: Packing for Mars: The Curious Life of Science in the Void by Mary Roach. See you next time!