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March 2016

The Pus Pioneers

Author Affiliations
  • 1Department of Dermatology, Georgetown University–Washington Hospital Center, Washington, DC
  • 2Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington, DC
JAMA Dermatol. 2016;152(3):298. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2015.1883

Throughout history, people in healing professions have self-experimented in pursuit of medical knowledge. Dedicated to their work and determined to prove their theories, these reckless trailblazers have risked their own lives to improve the health of others (and perhaps with other motivations, too). Herein, we remember several self-experimenters who contaminated their bodies with pus, people whom we call “pus pioneers.”

In a possibly apocryphal story,1 Jonathan Hunter, an 18th-century British surgeon, used penile pus to attempt confirmation that gonorrhea and syphilis were manifestations of the same disease. He dipped a lancet in (another man’s) gonorrheal pus and then inoculated his own penis. Hunter developed signs of both gonorrhea and syphilis, thereby “proving” they were manifestations of a single disease.2 Hunter was unaware that the pus donor likely was dual infected with both conditions. Sadly, Hunter died several years later, possibly from syphilitic heart disease. However, we remember him as the namesake of the “Hunterian chancre,” the ulcer of primary syphilis.

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