Self-Surgery: The Correct Way to do Human Experimentation

This 1908 paper is a gem. It's about recovery from nerve trauma — and the research was done by two doctors who were so interested in the subject that one volunteered to have his nerves severed, just to see how they healed.

In 1903, neurological research was in its early stages. A group of doctors, Doctor Henry Head and Doctors Rivers and Sherren, were interested in what nerves did during recovery. After not finding sufficiently clean nerve injuries that might allow them to make a study of nerve recovery, they settled on a solution. In their 1908 paper on the subject they wrote, "The solution is simple. Dr Rivers will cut and suture all cutaneous branches of Dr Head's radial nerve at the left elbow sparing any muscular innervations and, together, they will study the patterns of recovery."

Well, that solves it. The surgery was carried out at a friend's house. At intervals after the surgery, they studied exactly what sensations came back to which areas of the hand. There seems to be some tension in the group at that time.

The experiment is made difficult by Dr Head's propensity to formulate and report all forms of stimulus—sensory, olfactory and auditory—as visual images, such that Dr Rivers often has to repeat tests in order to elicit a reliable and stable response, especially for impressions of sensory discrimination.

The doctors expressed surprised at the time it took the nerves to recover. Dr Head must have been somewhat concerned that it took a full year to feel simple touch again, but the group pronounced the experiment a success. If only all attempts at human experimentation were done by the right kind of weirdos.

[Via Brain: A Journal of Neurology.]