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Sir Henry Head's self-experimentation

Sir Henry Head

There is a long, storied, mad science tradition of self-experimentation. On the fictional side there are several archetypes. The first one that comes to mind for many is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Personally, being a huge nerd, I tend to think first of the multitudes of comic book examples; both the hero and villain super types. There’s Doc Ock’s tentacle arms. There's Reed Richards, who launched his space ship too soon to try and prove that his scientific acumen was better than his short-sighted funding agencies. There's Ultimate Bruce Banner. The Beast. Norman Osborne. And so on. It’s an especially prevalent theme in the Marvel Universe.

However, self-experimentation is not limited to fiction. Real-world examples abound. The most well-documented pre-modern case of scientific self-experimentation is from the early 1600s with Sanctorius and his “weighing chair”. Sanctorius weighed himself, everything he ate and drank, every excretion, for 30 years, to study metabolism. Notably, while this is the most famous documented case, I’m quite sure there is also a fine history of people trying shit out just to see what happens. That’s science, too. Just ask my wife when I come home after a night of drinking with second degree burns.

Of course, there are more modern examples. Albert Hofmann found himself tripping one lovely Swiss afternoon during his famous bicycle ride. So what did he do? He tried LSD again to see if his experience was tied to the drug. Self-experimentation has even lead to a Nobel Prize (and an IgNobel Prize). Barry Marshall campaigned for years that peptic ulcers were bacterial in origin and not due to stress or other behavioral factors. Finally he proved this by drinking a petri dish of H. pylori. He is even quoted as saying, in proper mad science fashion, “everyone was against me... but I knew I was right...” On the IgNobel side, Donald Unger spent 50 years cracking only the knuckles of his left hand, and not his right, to show that knuckle-cracking does not lead to arthritis of the fingers.

Following in this fine scientific tradition is the brilliant and influential neurologist (not to mention appropriately named) Sir Henry Head. If that’s not a proper 1960s punny, alliterative, Stan Lee name for a neurologist, I don’t know what is. Anyway, the good Dr. Head published quite a ground-breaking article with his collaborator WHR Rivers in the journal Brain in 1908 titled A Human Experiment in Nerve Division. In this article, Head and Rivers sought to examine the course of recovery of somatosensation after peripheral nerve damage. It was known from observing patients with such damage that the touch senses often recover after peripheral nerve damage, but because the patients weren't properly trained, they couldn't give an adequate account of their own recovery. As they say:

It soon became obvious that many observed facts would remain inexplicable without experimentation carried out more carefully and for a longer period than was possible with a patient, however willing, whose ultimate object in submitting himself to observation is the cure of his disease.

So Head's solution? Cut open his arm and sever some nerves! Dr. Head enlisted the assistance of another doctor to surgically sever some of the peripheral nerves in his left arm and hand. In the figure below, you can see the outline where all initial sensation was lost on his arm. In this figure, eighty-six days post surgery, his pain sensations had returned to almost the entire region.

Sir Henry Head, left hand, Fig. 10

They continued their long-term testing and observations for four years and they were able to conclude fairly conclusively that different somatosensations are processed separately early on, but later combined higher up in the processing stream to give a unified sense of touch. What's especially amusing is their attempt to find a control region on the body that can sense pressure and pain but not soft touch:

We then discovered that the glans penis responded to cutaneous stimuli in that peculiar manner with which we were already familiar from our study of the first stage of recovery after nerve division.

They then went on to describe in amusing, medical detail their experiments on Dr. Head's... well... head:

In the case of [Head], the tip happens to be devoid of heat-spots but is sensitive to cold and to pain. When... it was dipped into water at 40° C, no sensation of heat was produced, but [Head] experienced an unusually disagreeable sensation of pain... But, as soon as the water covered the corona without reaching the foreskin, both cold and pain disappeared, giving place to an exquisitely pleasant sensation of heat.

Teenaged giggles aside, it's a fascinating sketch of early modern medical research. It's also an interesting account of how sometimes self-experimentation and observation can really offer insight into the workings of the brain and body. As my wife pointed out, there's an amazing contemporary example of this phenomenon: Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor's account of her own stroke.

There's a nice personal view of Dr. head that was written in the journal Brain in 1961 titled, Henry Head: A Man and his Ideas. It was written by Brain's long-time editor—and I'm not making this up—Dr. Russell Brain, 1st Baron Brain. Again, another excellent Stan Lee mad scientist name. And no, the journal wasn't named after him... it existed for many decades prior to his tenure as editor. All of the Brain articles I've linked to, by the way, are free and open access. Thanks Brain!


  1. Henry Head's collaborator and co-author in the nerve-severing experiments was WHR Rivers, who is a facinating character in his own right, and now sort of famous due to his being the psychiatrist character in Pat Barker's Regeneration WW1 novels. You can read more about Rivers in this post on my blog.

  2. You're absolutely right! I was waffling a bit about mentioning him, as I was considering a separate future post, but I've decided to opt for accuracy and I've made a slight edit to the post to include him. Thanks!

  3. Have you heard of Allan Walker Blair's self-experimentation on the symptoms of Black Widow spider bites? It's quite a story.

    "One of the questions Blair had in mind when he began his experiment was whether people acquire immunity over successive bites. He never answered this question because, as he frankly admitted, he was afraid of having another experience like his first."

    1. Anonymous16:01

      Yes, it's a great book. Dr. Blair's experiment continues to draw serious attention, decades after it occurred! Along with Grice's book, there's been articles in "Time" and "The New Yorker." I once saw a documentary about this and now there's play in a book called "Wetion" that deals with the experiment. In the play is a song called "Doodles and Grey Dandies" by The Tracings that is also about the experiment.

  4. Dan H16:29

    I don't think it included Henry Head, but a good book on the history, ethics, and current status of self experimentation is "Who Goes First?" by Lawrence Altman. It will give you a few more interesting and disgusting examples not in the Marvel Universe.

  5. Benjamin: Wow, that's fascinating. Thanks for sharing it. The quotation you shared encapsulates that excerpt pretty well.

  6. Dan:

    Cool! Thanks for sharing. I'll have to put it in my book queue.

  7. Anonymous19:02

    I'm partial to Werner Forssmann's self-cardiac catheterization in 1929. Tying up a nurse, working a wire up into his heart, and strolling over to the X-Ray room to see his handiwork . . . that's the kind of guy he was. Shared the 1956 Nobel.

  8. Anonymous:

    That's funny you mention that... you're the second person who's read this post that suggested that to me. It's a *crazy* story. Thanks.

  9. Dan H06:52

    The second chapter of "Who goes first" is about Forssmann and the cardiac catheterization. To briefly fill in some details, he needed the nurse to get the sterile supplies for the experiment. He convinced her that she was going to be the first volunteer, tied her down as if he was going to insert the catheter in her, secretly threaded it into himself, and only released her after showing the catheter was deeply inside so that they could get the x-ray.

  10. The spirit of Head is not dead. I was talking to a neuroscientist who decided to find out what happens if you use transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) on your... other "head".

    Apparently it didn't do anything.

  11. Ohhh... I bet it did something. I've used TMS before, as a subject and a researcher. It feels like someone flicking you in the head. I can't imagine that feels too different anywhere else...

    Plus, now that guy's first child will have magnetic superpowers. So that's a plus.

  12. We are in Dr Henry Head's debt and admire his bravery.