The poison taker

There is a long and often honourable history of self-experimentation in medicine.  Medical pioneers have often been unwilling or unable to test a new therapy on living patients, since the potential harm to a volunteer was just too great to justify. But what if the researcher is convinced that the treatment they have spent years developing really will prove beneficial? A few brave souls decided that their own body was the best possible laboratory. At least twelve Nobel prizes have been won by self-experimenters – most recently the Australian physician Barry Marshall, who suspected that there was a link between a bacterium,  Helicobacter pylori, and stomach ulcers.  In 1984 he tested his hypothesis by swallowing a culture of the bacterium and was proved correct within a matter of days when endoscopy showed that the organism had colonised his stomach. For this selfless piece of research he was awarded the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

In 1852 the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal published news of an equally intrepid – but sadly less successful – piece of self-experimentation:

Poison taker

The death of Dr. Ellenberger, a naturalist of Prague, has been recently announced. This gentleman was a sort of modern Mithridates, and had, for many years previous to his death, been in the constant habit of swallowing the most deadly poisons, and of neutralizing their effects by immediately taking the antidotes.

Mithridates the Great, king of Pontus, was said to have developed a ‘universal antidote’, known in English as mithridate and supposedly efficacious against all known poisons. According to a recipe given by the Roman scholar Celsus it contained 36 ingredients.

Some years ago, M. Orfila, who was travelling in Germany, paid a visit to the Museum of Natural History at Prague; Dr. Ellenberger was presented to him, and commenced immediately to give the eminent chemist a running account of his experiments with the antidotes of the vegetable alkalis, and especially with that of strychnine and morphine, and offered to make M. Orfila an eyewitness of his success. He sent to a neighbouring apothecary’s for fifteen decigrammes [1.5 g] of acetate of morphine, and M. Orfila having declared it to be perfectly pure, he rolled it into a bullet and swallowed it.

Morphine acetate is a molecule closely related to heroin. The dose he took was massive, more even than the daily maximum recommended for terminally-ill patients in palliative care.

Thirty seconds after, he took an equal quantity of a white powder which he carried in his pocket. No effect whatever followed this double dose. The Doctor stated that he had already done the same thing times without number, upon himself, upon animals, and even upon plants, which he washed first with a liquid strongly impregnated with a poison. and afterwards with the antidote. He had even made experiments with strychnine, and always with success.

It sounds most unwise. And so it proved, as an update in a later edition of the journal makes clear under the headline The Late Martyr to Science:

We lately reported the death of Dr. Ellenberger, a French physician at Prague, in consequence of an experiment he made on himself with poison, against the effect of which he contended he had discovered an infallible antidote.

After a recap of his morphine experiment, the paper reveals Dr Ellenberger’s fatal misadventure:

He appears to have done the same with strychnine, and always with impunity, until the last time, when he unfortunately lost his life.

5 thoughts on “The poison taker”

  1. Very hard to find since the ‘net is filled with articles where doctors and researchers pat each other on the back for their discoveries…. And it has been too many years (more than twenty but less than thirty) since I read of it either in a science journal or in a book for me to remember the source… but it cannot have been too long after this Nobel prize was awarded because that was what stimulated the writings condemning the award. Gastric ulcers are common to people and swine. People can be treated in many ways because they can be talked to and reasoned with and because people are an endless source of money. Swine, on the other hand, simply won’t eat and this costs the pig farmer money so veterinarians need to actually cure their problems. Shortly after WWII, when antibiotics became more widely available veterinarians discovered they cured ulcers in pigs and pig farmers discovered they cured ulcers among their family and friends. But the orthodox medical community refused to accept or condone veterinary medicine for people. So decades passed before people were finally allowed the same relief that pigs had been receiving since the nineteen forties. I know it sounds like a conspiracy theory… but I also know I read of it in several sources… all from back before there was any real internet to obfuscate search results.

  2. The government really did poison liquor. Specifically, sometimes industrial denatured alcohol, instead of being mixed with something to make it undrinkable, was mixed with un-tastable poisons like strychnine. Several thousand people supposedly died from this over the course of prohibition. One of the selling points of getting your booze from mobsters was that they sold stuff a lot less likely to kill you than what you could get from “less reputable sources! (I”m getting all this from the book “One Summer: America, 1927, which was a good read except for having less about movies than I hoped for).

  3. Horses also get ulcers. To relieve the pain, they will chew on anything available. That’s why they chew up wooden buildings, fences, etc.

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