Some of the greatest advances in medicine were spearheaded by some of the most eccentric characters. Ben Chandler reviews his top five eccentric medrepreneurs.
HORACE WELLS (1815-1848)
Wells was an American dentist with a dislike for inflicting pain on his patients. His flash of genius occurred at a travelling show where he observed an audience member injure their leg while under the influence of laughing gas (nitrous oxide). Wells noted that the person experienced no pain and realised that this gas might also bring to an end the pain of dental surgery. In his first experiment he took the gas himself for his own tooth extraction and subsequently used it on a number of patients.
A month later he staged his first public demonstration but unfortunately the patient was not sufficiently anaesthetised and cried out in pain when the tooth was extracted. The audience were not impressed and booed Wells from the stage. After some time promoting his work in France Wells returned to the USA and continued researching anaesthetics. Unfortunately on one occasion whilst taking chloroform he became deranged and threw acid over two prostitutes, later committing suicide once he realised what he had done.
ALEXIS CARREL (1873-1944)
Alexis Carrel was a gifted surgeon, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for devising methods of suturing blood vessels, as well as developing an aseptic technique that was used extensively throughout the First World War. However, he was a controversial character, firstly drawing criticism amongst some medics for publishing a book about miracle cures at Lourdes, and later for his political views and eugenics work. He died in 1944 having been accused but never tried for collaborating with the Nazi party in occupied France.
JAMES BARRY (1792-1865)
Barry was a surgeon with the British Army and an early pioneer of the caesarean section. History suggests that Barry was actually a woman, born Margaret Ann Bulkley. Barry is likely to have been the first British female doctor. She is alleged to have hidden her sex to allow her to follow her chosen career in medicine. It was only following her death that her true identity was discovered when underneath her gentlemen’s garments was the body of a women.
CHRISTIAAN BARNARD (1922-2001)
Known as the “film star surgeon” Barnard became an overnight celebrity when he performed the first human heart transplant in 1967. Always pushing the boundaries of possibility, he also transplanted primate hearts into humans on two occasions (one from a baboon and one from a chimpanzee). His private life resembled that of a modern celebrity with rumours of numerous affairs with famous women. He married three times, twice to fashion models – the final time to a girl young enough to be his granddaughter.
WERNER FORSSMANN (1904-1979)
Forssmann eventually became a urologist but in his earlier career he made his name by pushing catheters into places other than the urethra. His defining experiment was in 1929 when he inserted a catheter 65cm into his own cephalic vein before calmly walking up two flights of stairs to have an X-ray taken showing the tip in his right atrium. He published his feat along with suggestions for its use. However not everybody was impressed, and following disciplinary action for his self-experimentation he quit cardiology and pursued a career in urology. His work was eventually followed up and in 1956 he was awarded a Nobel Prize.