A four-part series on BBC4, Medical Mavericks: The History of Self Experimentation, fronted by journalist and former medic Michael Mosley, has been presenting the ‘curious, gruesome and sometimes fatal ways in which scientists have transformed medical knowledge by using themselves as guinea pigs’.
In the best tradition of BBC documentaries, these programmes combine a heady mixture of biography, scientific explanation, medical demonstration, archive footage, location filming, dramatic reconstruction, expert comment, and, of course, self-experimentation.
In the opening programme, which dealt with the discovery of anaesthetics and their introduction into medical practice, Mosley was dosed up with nitrous oxide under medical supervision. He happily administered repeated electrical shocks to his arm while he giggled like a child. No wonder that laughing gas is addictive.
The second episode looked at the development of vaccines and the scientists who literally took their own medicine. Programme three, just broadcast, explored the links between food and health and described the extreme lengths to which pioneers in the field were prepared to go to prove their hypotheses about the role of diet in health and disease.
The series is both interesting and entertaining but suffers from its unhealthy focus on the stories of mavericks who tend to be exotic figures on the edge between madness and genius. The public will not be surprised that medics may be driven to the point of life-threatening arrogance but there are less extraordinary ways of doing good medicine.
The final instalment will cover the intrepid scientific explorers who injected themselves with rather nasty infectious organisms. It will feature Barry Marshall, the Nobel prizewinner who swallowed H. pylori to demonstrate Koch’s postulates in the only way possible without an animal model. I am not so sure that he would like to be in the company of some of the mavericks featured in the series.
An American dentist, Horace Wells, demonstrated the benefit of nitrous oxide by having a tooth removed while under the influence. This historical reference lets me finish with a joke that will prove much more painful. Did you hear about the yogi who had his wisdom teeth extracted without anaesthetic? He wanted to transcend dental medication. Ouch!