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:
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.