Long before there were rumors of COVID parties, there were “filth parties,” and the guest lists were exclusive. Joseph Goldberger, an infectious disease expert in the US Public Health Service, was tasked in 1914 with determining the cause of pellagra, a deadly systemic disease. Many physicians of the time believed pellagra stemmed from an unknown microbe, but Goldberger felt strongly, and correctly, that it was the result of a nutritional deficiency. To prove it, he and his wife Mary held small gatherings in multiple cities during which they and a few brave volunteers injected themselves with the blood of pellagra victims and ingested capsules filled with the scabs, nasal secretions, feces, and urine of living patients.
History is spattered with sometimes-gruesome examples of medical self-experimentation, some of which have netted notoriety and awards. Self-experimentation “has certainly been a well-recognized tradition,” says Susan Lederer, a professor of the history of medicine and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “I would argue . . . it was almost required. The fact that you would risk it on your own body, or on your own children, was a sign of your good faith.”
In one of the more famous examples, Jonas Salk, a virologist at the University of Pittsburgh, first tested his polio vaccine on himself and his children in 1952. Four years earlier, virologist Hilary Koprowski and his assistant had tested their own rudimentary polio vaccine—this one made of liquefied rat brain and spinal cord—by drinking it themselves.
Research into yellow fever inspired greater personal sacrifice. A research team led by US Army physician Walter Reed arrived in Cuba at the end of the 19th century during the Spanish-American war to study the disease, which killed 13 soldiers for every one killed in battle. To establish how the virus was transmitted, three of Reed’s colleagues intentionally exposed themselves and a handful of volunteer soldiers to mosquitoes that had previously fed on victims of yellow fever. Three of the volunteers got sick, and one, Jesse Lazear, subsequently died. In 1930, Max Theiler, a virologist with the Rockefeller Foundation, began developing a yellow fever vaccine that he first tested on himself. For his discovery, he was awarded the 1951 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Nowadays, in the US, self-experimentation isn’t explicitly forbidden, and researchers can put themselves forward as candidates for treatments just as anyone else might. However, Lederer notes that many people now “look askance” at scientists who subject themselves and their families to unregulated treatments. As Allen Weisse, a retired cardiologist and medical historian, explains in a 2012 article, “The trend in recent years toward collaborative studies, often on a massive scale, makes self-experimentation by a single individual, tucked away in his laboratory, seem almost quaint, a relic of the past.”
Still, the last Nobel Prize awarded for work involving self-experimentation was only five years ago, when Tu Youyou was honored for developing an anti-malaria drug that she first tested on herself in the 1970s. Lederer says it’s likely that self-experimentation more often goes unreported nowadays, even as it still happens—including in pursuit of a vaccine to prevent COVID-19.
A longer version of this article appears on The Scientist’s website under the title “Self-Experimentation in the Time of COVID-19”