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The doctor who jammed a catheter into his own heart

Heart patients worldwide owe a lot to Dr. Werner Forssmann. In the late 1920s, the medical community knew little about how to treat heart ailments. Instead, most of what we knew about hearts came from studying cadavers.

Forssmann was inspired by a textbook that featured a tube entering the heart of a living horse through a jugular vein, which showed you could have a catheter enter the heart of a living thing without killing it. He wanted to prove it was possible to administer a similar procedure on humans.

The problem was, his supervisors wouldn’t let him carry out the experiment, fearing that accessing the heart in this manner could be deadly. But Forssmann wouldn’t take “no” for an answer and decided to test the theory on himself. He made an incision in his own arm, inserted a catheter into a vein, and shoved it all the way up his vein and into his heart.

This was the first time that cardiac catheterization had been clinically tested on a living human being, and it proved successful—Forssmann survived.

Despite risking his life and the experiment’s ultimate significance to the medical community, Forssmann was fired and he even struggled to find work as a surgeon. But his experiment led the way for doctors to study heart ailments and intravenous treatment during cardiac resuscitation.

It wasn’t until 1956 that he finally got the recognition he deserved: a Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work in developing this bold procedure.

Sacrificed is a Fusion original series in which we share the stories of scientists so passionate about their research, they use themselves as human guinea pigs, subjecting their bodies to dangerous conditions and diseases in a valiant (though sometimes misguided) search for the truth.

The doctor who jammed a catheter into his own heart

Heart patients worldwide owe a lot to Dr. Werner Forssmann. In the late 1920s, the medical community knew little about how to treat heart ailments. Instead, most of what we knew about hearts came from studying cadavers.

Forssmann was inspired by a textbook that featured a tube entering the heart of a living horse through a jugular vein, which showed you could have a catheter enter the heart of a living thing without killing it. He wanted to prove it was possible to administer a similar procedure on humans.

The problem was, his supervisors wouldn’t let him carry out the experiment, fearing that accessing the heart in this manner could be deadly. But Forssmann wouldn’t take “no” for an answer and decided to test the theory on himself. He made an incision in his own arm, inserted a catheter into a vein, and shoved it all the way up his vein and into his heart.

This was the first time that cardiac catheterization had been clinically tested on a living human being, and it proved successful—Forssmann survived.

Despite risking his life and the experiment’s ultimate significance to the medical community, Forssmann was fired and he even struggled to find work as a surgeon. But his experiment led the way for doctors to study heart ailments and intravenous treatment during cardiac resuscitation.

It wasn’t until 1956 that he finally got the recognition he deserved: a Nobel Prize in Medicine for his work in developing this bold procedure.

Sacrificed is a Fusion original series in which we share the stories of scientists so passionate about their research, they use themselves as human guinea pigs, subjecting their bodies to dangerous conditions and diseases in a valiant (though sometimes misguided) search for the truth.

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