Doctor Won a Nobel Prize for Tying a Nurse to a Surgical Table

Nobel prize

Medicine has had its fair share of doctors who dedicated their lives to science and experiment. Literally, by performing experiments on themselves. Such as the physician who smuggled parasites in his semen and the war surgeon who pumped hydrogen gas up his anus.

As reckless as they might sound, many such absurd, and indeed dangerous, experiments have paved the foundation of modern medicine. A notable example of which is Werner Forssmann, whose pioneering self-experimentation pushed the boundaries of cardiology, and won him a Nobel Prize.

Forssmann was receiving clinical training for surgery in 1929 at Eberswalde Surgical Clinic, near Berlin.

It was here he became invested in the (then bizarre) idea of using a thin catheter to directly inject drugs into the major vessels of the heart, a process that is now called cardiac catheterization. His inspiration came from a sketch in a physiology textbook showing a thin tube being inserted into a horse’s jugular vein and guided into the animal’s heart. He believed that the veins in the crease of the arm could be an accessible entry to catheterize the heart. Before proposing the idea to his seniors, he had been secretly experimenting on cadavers. However, when he proposed the idea of attempting this procedure on a patient, his superiors refused the risky procedure.

Unbothered by the limitations placed by senior doctors, Forssmann decided to conduct the procedure on himself.

He inserted a cannula into the antecubital vein in his left elbow, through which he inserted a 65 cm long catheter. Initially pushing it 30 cm into the vein, he then walked to the radiology department. After visually locating the position of the catheter tip with an X-ray, he pushed it further till it reached his right auricle. The entire performance involved manipulating a surgical nurse to access the required surgical equipment, and physically fighting off a doctor that tried to pull the catheter out. 

Although Forssmann achieved what he wanted to prove with his series of experiments, and went on to publish his research findings for the benefit of the medical community, his controversial method was met with a lot of criticism, because of which he even lost his job. He continued to experiment with aortography until 1935, and then eventually switched his career to urology. However, scientists André Cournand and Dickinson W. Richards further advanced his cardiology findings to go on to perform human cardiac catheterization. And in 1956, they were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.


Werner Forssmann: A German Problem with the Nobel Prize

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Dr. Aiman Shahab is a dentist with a bachelor’s degree from Dow University of Health Sciences. She is an experienced freelance writer with a demonstrated history of working in the health industry. Skilled in general dentistry, she is currently working as an associate dentist at a private dental clinic in Karachi, freelance content writer and as a part time science instructor with Little Medical School. She has also been an ambassador for PDC in the past from the year 2016 – 2018, and her responsibilities included acting as a representative and volunteer for PDC with an intention to make the dental community of Pakistan more connected and to work for benefiting the underprivileged. When she’s not working, you’ll either find her reading or aimlessly walking around for the sake of exploring. Her future plans include getting a master’s degree in maxillofacial and oral surgery, settled in a metropolitan city of North America.


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