From dipping food into a bullet wound to swallowing a bacterial sample, these five examples of "human experimentation" opened new doors for science.

Usually a scientist would never begin an experiment by testing in humans. After all, it would seem almost alien to start out immediately poking and prodding people based only on an educated hypothesis. Instead, researchers begin slowly in petri dishes, models or another simulated environment and move up from there.

However, there are times when a scientist has no other option. Believing in his or her own work so much, the only solution is to offer themselves up as a test subject to develop or prove something absolutely groundbreaking. It’s not taking the classical approach, but it gets the job done.

Five researchers make our list of scientists who conducted groundbreaking human experiments (or at least pushed ethical limits with humans) by experimenting on themselves, the unsuspecting or their willing partner.

1. William Beaumont:

Because of William Beaumont’s experimentation on Alexis St. Martin, he is coined "The father of gastric physiology;" however, some scientific historians question the ethics behind the research.

On June 6, 1822, Alexis St. Martin was accidentally shot in the torso. As an Army surgeon, Beaumont treated the wound, but expected St. Martin to die.

Instead, St. Martin recovered, but developed a fistula (open tube leading to his stomach) from his injury which left him unable to return to work. Beaumont hired him as a contracted servant, but found another opportunity for keeping St. Martin around. Due to the way the injury healed, Beaumont was able to observe St. Martin’s digestive processes. But here’s where it gets a little gross – to really gain insight into digestion, Beaumont would tie some string around a piece of food and insert it into the hole, observing it every few hours to see how well it had been digested. He also extracted gastric acid and continued experimentation after St. Martin left. Beaumont’s research led to an understanding that stomach acid plays a significant role in digestion and that chewing was not the primary process.

2. George Otto Gey:

Ok, this example doesn’t really involve experimenting on a person directly, but it is a famous case that seemed to defy human ethics. Gey was the scientist behind the development of the HeLa cell line, which is the first immortalized human cell line used for research. The reason it’s a touchy subject is because Henrietta Lacks, a cancer patient, was the unsuspecting source of these cells, and her surviving family received no financial gain.

In 1951 Lacks’s treating physician sent a biopsy to Gey’s lab. The cells grew at an astounding rate and were later sold to other researchers. The HeLa cell line contributed to other discoveries such as developing vaccines for human papillomavirus.

As fate would have it, Gey was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. And as a committed researcher, right before an emergency surgery, he instructed doctors to take a biopsy and attempt to grow another line of cells for research. Unfortunately, his wishes were ignored.

3. Science for the Masses (SFM):

In 2015, a group of independent researchers, described as “biohackers,” collaborated on a project to test the possibility of night vision. Using information from Totada R. Shantha’s 2012 patent for using Chlorin e6 (Ce6) as a treatment for night blindness, the Science for the Masses team set out to experiment on one of their own. Gabriel Licinia offered himself to be the test subject, while Jeffrey Tibbetts, another SFM member, pipetted 50 microliters of their Ce6 mixture into the conjunctival sack of Licinia’s eye. Their mixture was based on the original patented formula; however, the SFM team added insulin and dimethylsulfoxide to improve the blend. The experiment worked.

When tested at night in the woods, Licinia was able to identify people and shapes at given distances 100% of the time, while the control group was only able to identify objects one third of the time. This experiment, however, was meant for informational purposes. And the SFM team cautions others not to try this on their own since increasing light amplification might cause negative side effects. With that said, the SFM team also said it may open opportunities to grant soldiers improved night vision.

4. Jonas Salk:

While Jonas Salk followed conventional experimental methods, he makes the list since he and his family were among the initial test subjects. Salk is famed for developing a polio vaccine using a “killed-virus.” Originally, when proposing the idea, he was insulted by other researchers, even called “a mere kitchen chemist” by virologist Albert Sabin. Despite some of the negative press, Salk was developing his vaccine faster than developers of live-virus vaccines, and March of Dimes resources soon went to support his endeavor.

After effectively inoculating monkeys first, he volunteered himself and family for the next step. In 1952, Salk boiled some needles in his kitchen stove and administered the vaccine to himself, his wife and three kids. Around that same time, he also partnered with the D.T. Watson Home for Crippled Children and the Polk State School, administering the vaccine to a small sample of children. The results were successful, and after gaining more public support, one of the biggest American clinical trials began. Between April and of June 1954 there were 1.8 million “polio pioneers.”

But even more heroic than volunteering himself and family to literally save millions, Salk opted not to patent the vaccine and received no compensation for his discovery. Salk was once asked about who owned the patent, and he replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the Sun?”

5. Barry J. Marshall and J. Robin Warren:

We started with the stomach, and we’re ending with the stomach with Barry Marshall and J. Robin Warren. This is perhaps the best example of self-experimentation leading to brilliant discoveries.

Warren was a pathologist who had been studying gastritis, which can lead to stomach ulcers and gastric cancer, and Marshall began taking an interest in the work. The two noticed that the usual drug treatments that blocked gastric acid would only work temporarily, and patients would often relapse. Together they began to study a spiral bacterium (Heliobacter pylori) that appeared to be associated with stomach ulcers. However, the suggestion that bacteria could live in the acidic conditions of the stomach seemed preposterous to most scientists. To make things more difficult for Warren and Marshall, during their research, the pair was unable to infect piglets to prove their theory. But being so sure of their research, Marshall drank from a dish containing cultured H. pylori. Of course he did not do this before having an endoscopy to show his gastric conditions were normal. After ingesting the culture, Marshall began experiencing the initial symptoms: nausea and halitosis, which crept up only three days later. Five days later he began vomiting. And on the eighth day, Marshall had a second endoscopy and biopsy, revealing he had gastritis and H. pylori was present. To counter the infection, Marshall began taking antibiotics.

Their risky move was rewarded in 2005 with a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of Heliobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease.

Do you think any other scientists make the list? Comment below and share their stories!

Karen Martin
GoldBio Marketing Coordinator

"To understand the universe is to understand math." My 8th grade
math teacher's quote meant nothing to me at the time. Then came
college, and the revelation that the adults in my past were right all
along. But since math feels less tangible, I fell for biology and have
found pure happiness behind my desk at GoldBio, learning, writing
and loving everything science.

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