YEAR: 2007 | LENGTH: 4 parts (50 minutes each)
DESCRIPTION: An exploration of the ways in which pioneering doctors laid the foundations of modern medicine by experimenting on themselves. – source
In this first episode, Dr Mosley charts the development of pain-free surgery. He starts with the 18th century chemist Humphrey Davy, who inhaled up to 50 pints of laughing gas a day and yet missed its true significance. Conman-turned-dentist Dr William Morton slept with a skeleton by night and experimented with ether by day, 19th century Scottish national hero James Young Simpson’s reckless enthusiasm for chloroform led to numerous deaths and Sigmund Freud’s experiments with cocaine transformed anaesthetics.
Mosley also undergoes some of the historical experiments himself and meets researchers who are continuing the tradition of self-experimentation today.
Mosley explores the unbelievable ways in which doctors learnt to harness the immune system by deliberately exposing themselves to incurable diseases like rabies, typhoid and polio. He meets the team of Nottingham doctors who are infecting themselves with hookworms to see if they can shut down the immune system in order to cope with allergies like hayfever and asthma.
The programme includes the story of living self-experimenter Dr Hilary Koprowski, who mixed up a potion of ground-up rats’ brains in the 1950s and drank it in his efforts to develop an oral polio vaccine. Mosley charts the terrible consequences of releasing an unproven vaccine too early, which happened in the race to control polio in the 1930s and the 1950s. One of the contributors describes the 1950s polio trial which involved millions of children as ‘the worst man-made biological disaster in American history’.
It starts in the 18th century with 28 year-old Dr William Stark. Stark is a little-known hero of nutrition and the first doctor to systematically record the effect of different foods on his health. At the time food was seen simply as a form of fuel, it didn’t really matter what you ate. To disprove this, Stark decided to live on nothing but bread and water, then slowly add new foods one at a time. He continued this punishing dietary experiment for nine long months. Tragically, just before adding fruit to his diet, he succumbed to scurvy. Stark died because he didn’t know about vitamins and was unable to make the connection between his worsening health and the food he had been consuming. In fact, much of what we know today about which foods contain nutrients essential to our health is knowledge slowly and painfully acquired by self-experimenters.
Men like Dr Joseph Goldberger who, through eating a dying patient’s excrement, found the true cause of a dreadful epidemic and changed forever what goes into our food, or like Dr Victor Herbert who proved the health benefits of folic acid by living on thrice-boiled hamburgers, marshmallows and jelly, a diet that almost killed him.
In the programme Michael Mosley also repeats the experiment of Dr Hugh Sinclair, who lived on nothing but seal meat and fish oil for six months to demonstrate its effect on his blood.
Finally, Michael meets Dave who practises Calorie Restriction, a lifelong self-experiment with the goal of extending his lifespan by 50 years. Could diet really hold the secret of a life without the diseases of aging?
18th century surgeon John Hunter is thought to have stabbed himself in the groin with the pus of a syphilis patient to prove his theory that syphilis and gonorrhoea were different stages of the same disease. Dr Jesse Lazear demonstrated that mosquitoes spread yellow fever by allowing himself to be bitten by mosquitoes that had been feeding on dying yellow fever patients.
The programme brings us up to the present day with Dr Barry Marshall who proved through a course of painful self-experiments that a bacteria, not stress, causes ulcers as was commonly thought. Presenter Michael Mosley carries out his own self-experiment by allowing himself to be bitten by hundreds of mosquitoes at the London School of Tropical Medicine to find out which areas of the body, the disease carrying insects are most attracted to.