“The stories of self-experiments are many and varied. The only thing they have in common is the climax: the moment when a researcher chooses to go first and steps forward. He begins an experiment by which he measures, injects, drinks, inhales, inserts, spreads, insufflates objects, substances, and materials of various origins inside his own body. A body dedicated to the “firsts” of science, simultaneously the creator and guinea pig of medical progress. In many cases, nothing happened. Some went up in smoke. Some got the Nobel Prize. This is often how the “great leaps” came about that today make us a long-lived, healthy, passably happy species.”
Visionary, Heroic, and Totally Mad tells of self-experiments and self-experimenters, doctors who decided to try out their ideas directly on themselves, sometimes with a strike of madness and recklessness, others with sincere altruism and stubborn courage.
For every new medicine or new medical technique there is always a first “trial case.” A discovery has to be tested on someone to make sure that it works. In many cases, that someone was the same person who made the original discovery, and decided to put his or her body on the line to prove a point. Sometimes this act did not lead to results and went forgotten. Other times, it was fatal. In some cases, it paved the way for a Nobel prize and marked a fundamental advance in knowledge.
But why experiment on oneself? The highest motivation is the generous “I would never do to others what I don’t have the courage to do to myself.”
But over the many stories in this book, there are also those who did it just for convenience, or because no one believed them, or simply because they didn’t trust anyone else. Many did it out of sheer curiosity, and some even out of anger or spite. Silvia Bencivelli writes with a witty and light style, touching on the key topics of the relationship between medicine, society and power, and letting the reader in on some of the most incredible stories of medicine, from the seventeenth century to the present. We will meet doctors who intentionally let ticks and mosquitoes sting them to prove the origin of a disease; reckless inventors of revolutionary surgical techniques; wild experimenters with unknown substances; even surgeons who operated on themselves, either to gain publicity or because they lacked alternatives. In stories that certainly do not leave the reader cold, the history of medicine that emerges is decidedly different from the one we usually hear.
SILVIA BENCIVELLI is a medical-scientific journalist, writer, and radio and television presenter, who focuses on social and science communication in schools, universities and as part of cultural events, as both a speaker and moderator.