Zest For Self Experimentation

It’s the last day in the month of April and with this we come to the end of this year’s #AToZChallenge. I had chosen my theme for the month to be DOCTORS & SCIENTISTS WHO SELF EXPERIMENTED and so far, we have seen 25 amazing, crazy, life changing self-experiments. This challenge has definitely been close to my heart and so I end it with someone who experimented on the heart, not just on anyone else’s heart but his very own!

Werner Theodor Otto Forssmann was born on 29thAugust 1904 in Berlin. He is famous for the procedure of cardiac catheterization which won him the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1956. He was a member of the Nazi party from 1932 to 1945 and at the start of the World War II became a medical officer. He was captured and put in a Prisoners of War Camp. After his release he worked as a lumberjack for some time and then restarted his practice in 1950.

Forssmann was the first one to hypothesize that a catheter could be inserted into the heart. This would enable doctors to deliver drugs directly to the heart, inject dyes and even measure the blood pressure. Most researchers at the time found it hard to accept the idea because they believed that such a procedure if attempted, would end up being fatal.

He, however firmly believed that such a procedure was possible and if done properly would not endanger the life of the patient but would actually help make it better. The idea first came to him from a sketch in his physiology textbook, showing a long thin tube being placed into a horse’s jugular vein and then guided into its heart. Dr Forssmann wanted to do the same in a man’s heart, not through the jugular vein but through the veins in the crease of the arm which he believed were easily accessible.

He didn’t get the permission by the clinic in which he worked to conduct this experiment. But he decided to go ahead anyways. So, in 1929 Forssmann attempted the first ever cardiac catheterization. The procedure was planned in Eberswalde and his subject was supposed to be Greda Ditzen, an operating room nurse. She had volunteered to be the first subject because she knew if not, Forssmann would experiment on himself.

He asked Ditzen to lay on the operating table and restrained her. Then without her realizing he anesthetized his own arm, cut it at the elbow and inserted the catheter and gradually pushed it through the vein. Ditzen who till then was waiting for Forssmann to anesthetize her arm unaware of what was happening suddenly realized what he was up to. She was annoyed at being tricked but Forssmann who didn’t bother about what she felt and also because he had tube sticking into his arm, asked her to accompany him to the X-ray department because he wanted to see where the catheter had reached. Once they were there, he advanced the catheter further under the guidance of the X-ray machine and was able to deliver the catheter into the heart. The X- ray images were proof enough for everyone to see what he had done.

The head clinician at the institute was angry with Forssmann for trying such a dangerous self-experiment in spite of being warned not to. But once he had seen the X-rays, he realized the value of what Forssmann had done. He permitted Forssmann to conduct another cardiac catheterization on a terminally ill patient. He did it and delivered the required drugs directly to the heart of the patient through it and her condition improved.

He died on 1stJune 1979 of heart failure in Germany.

This post is a part of the #AToZChallenge-2018 My theme for this month is DOCTORS & SCIENTISTS WHO SELF EXPERIMENTED. You can read all other posts here


  1. He was certainly brave and somewhat mad. I guess that you have to be a little bit mad to make for real change. His membership in the Nazi Party, however, wasn’t his shining moment.

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