Tech UPTechnologyThe true (and disgusting) story of yellow fever

The true (and disgusting) story of yellow fever

In 1998, the peculiar committee of the famous Ignominious Nobel (or Anti-Nobel), which for decades has rewarded research that celebrates “the unusual, honors the imaginative and stimulates everyone’s interest in science, medicine and technology”, decided to award the IgNobel in Entomology to the New York veterinarian Robert A. Lopez. His research, carried out as far back as 1968, consisted of verifying “the possibility of transmitting the [cat] ear mite, or todectes cynotis , to human beings”. And he had no better idea than to dip a sterile cotton swab in lukewarm tap water and transfer about a gram of mites from a cat’s ear… to his left ear!

His description of the following hours is most exhaustive: he began to notice how they moved through his ear canal at the same time that he felt an increasingly intense itching: “the activity of the mites increased in such a way that, at midnight, they were fully occupied biting, scratching and moving about as they pleased,” he wrote. For a month he kept them lodged in his ear, from where they finally disappeared. And as he wanted to verify that his experiment had been well carried out… he repeated it again!

There is no doubt that we are facing a peculiar experiment (not to say disgusting), but more striking is that it was the scientist himself who decided to become the guinea pig. What is truly amazing, however, is that this is not an isolated case: self-experimentation, made famous by Stevenson in his 1886 novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckill and Mr. Hyde , has a long tradition in American history. science, especially medicine.

It is at this point where we connect with the issue at hand. One of the diseases that has contributed the most martyrs/heroes/crazy people to science is yellow fever … as well as being responsible for the most disgusting self-experiment known.

It all started in the early 19th century, when a medical doctoral student named Stubbins Ffirth decided to settle, once and for all, the then heated debate about whether yellow fever was contagious. He first poured “fresh black vomit” from a patient into a series of gashes on his forearm. Seeing that he did not get sick, he went a step further and washed his eyes with vomit and other fluids of yellow fever patients : blood, saliva, sweat and urine. Any. So he designed a ‘vomit sauna’ which he filled with heated vomit vapours: it only caused him “great pain in the head”. So all he had left was the most vomiting of all, forgive the redundancy: take a good drink of vomit . First he did it in the form of a pill but since he was not very convinced, in the end he ended up drinking directly from the patient’s mouth. As he did not get sick, he concluded that yellow fever was not contagious; a big mistake.

Who proved that it is was a team of doctors from the United States Army in 1900 in Cuba led by Walter Reed and made up of James Carroll, Aristides Agramonte and Jesse Lazear. It was the latter that put them on the trail: in a letter dated September 8, 1900, he wrote to his wife “I think I’m on the trail of the real germ.” To verify this, they were exposed to the bite of the mosquito that they suspected was the vector of yellow fever. They all got sick but only Lazear died seventeen days after writing that letter; I was 37 years old.  Nobody knew about this self-experiment until 1947 thanks to the discovery of Lazear’s laboratory notebooks.

Except for Aristides Agramonte, the rest of the researchers did not have better luck either. Walter Reed died of peritonitis in 1902 and James Carroll died of yellow fever in 1907. Curiously, the latter did not stop his experimentation in Cuba. In 1904, with the permission of the Army Surgeon General, he tested an oral vaccine against typhoid fever with 12 other volunteers. Due to an error in the preparation of the vaccine, 7 volunteers developed the disease (luckily they did not die).

The discovery of the yellow fever-carrying mosquito sparked a campaign for Reed’s team to be awarded the Nobel Prize, but it was unsuccessful . The one who took it later was the South African Max Theiler in 1951 for developing the first vaccine against yellow fever. How could it be otherwise, he tested it on himself.

What drives a scientist to become his own guinea pig? There is no doubt that there are many reasons; from pure ego, the desire to write a line in the history of science, to avoid the cumbersome paperwork that causes them to request permission from the relevant ethics committee.

This was the case of the German Werner Forssmann in the 1930s; he was so determined that he continued his work despite being denied permission. Forssmann received the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for this research: he inserted a urinary catheter into the brachial vein of his own forearm and guided it to the right atrium of the heart. He then walked to the radiology department to take an image showing the catheter in his heart. Forssmann was fired but thanks to him cardiac catheterization is now a routine procedure .

Other scholars point out that there is a personality factor that can make the scientist use himself as a guinea pig: extreme enthusiasm, an enlarged personality  where the conviction of one’s own worth can make the scientist launch himself down a path full of obstacles.


Kotar, S.L. and Gessler, J.E. (2017) Yellow Fever: A Worldwide History, McFarland & Co Inc

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