The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The gutsy — possibly crazy — scientists who risked death testing vaccines on themselves

Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, holds a rack of test tubes in his lab in Pittsburgh in 1954. (AP)
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In 1875, high up in the Andes mountains, hundreds of Peruvian railroad workers began coming down with a strange fever, which was followed by severe joint pain and then death.

As the body count soared, alarm set in across the country. Desperate to explain the origins of this strange new malady, a Peruvian medical society announced a contest.

A 26-year-old medical student named Daniel Carrión entered.

Scientists in Peru had a hunch the fever was connected to verruga peruana, also known as Peruvian warts. But they struggled to prove a link. To Carrión, whose father was a well-known physician, there was a simple solution.

If someone injected him with tissue from a wart on one of the sick patients and then he got sick, then voilà! Problem solved — there’s the connection. But there was another problem: Those who got the fever generally died.

Carrión was undeterred.

“Once he made the decision that experimentation on a human was necessary, he must have asked himself: On whom?” wrote Lawrence K. Altman, a physician and New York Times reporter in his history of self-experimentation in medicine. “Carrión answered that question in the only way his conscience would allow: Myself.”

He got the fever. And he died.

Altman’s book is titled “Who Goes First?” It’s a question that’s been asked throughout history when scientists have been confronted with a grave new malady such as the novel coronavirus now setting off alarm around the world.

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In the race to discover how disease spreads and what treatments might stop it, someone has to be tested first.

That someone is often the doctor in the white coat. Jonas Salk tested the polio vaccine — which contained a nonliving form of the virus — on himself and his children before giving it to strangers. In 1986, Daniel Zagury, a French immunologist, appointed himself to be the first person dosed with an experimental AIDS vaccine.

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A 2012 study identified 465 episodes of doctors’ self-experiments, with 140 of them related to dangerous infectious diseases. Eight self-experiments resulted in death, including physicians and scientists trying to curtail outbreaks of plague, typhus, cholera and yellow fever.

What would posses someone to, say, drink a hearty soup infused with cholera bacteria, as Max Joseph Pettenkofer did in 1892?

“Historically, self experimentation was an important part of the scientific process, allowing medical advances that would have been hard to achieve otherwise,” wrote two researchers in a rollicking 2018 paper titled “Adventures in self experimentation.”

And why?

“Because no sane human would agree to be a research participant and no ethical review board in its right mind would approve the experiment,” the researchers wrote.

Fair enough.

In more modern times, vaccines such as the one being pursued for the novel coronavirus are tested on animals for months and often years before reaching humans. It’s a deliberative process that has frustrated President Trump, who recently asked vaccine manufacturers, “How fast can you get it done?”

Throughout history, though, impatient and desperate scientists have decided to throw their own necks in the ring.

Twelve self-experimenters have won Nobel Prizes for their efforts, including Charles Jules Henri Nicolle, a French scientist who in the early 1900s took lice from typhus-infected chimps, crushed them up and made a vaccine that he tested on himself.

Werner Forssmann, a German, won a Nobel in 1956 for cardiac catheterization, which he first performed on himself, inserting a tube into a vein that he then directed into his heart. (Yes, his heart. Yes, he lived.)

Carrión, of course, didn’t live to see fame. But his bravery is immortal. In Peru, hospitals and soccer stadiums are named after him.

And yet he never authored a single scientific paper.

Read more Retropolis:

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