The scientists experimented with carrying weights on their genitals to investigate whether the pain was transmitted to other areas of the body.
Anyone who had seen Herbert Henry Woollard Y Edward Arnold Carmichael in full action I would have concluded at first glance that those two men were giving themselves over to unusual sadomasochistic practices, especially for a time more modest than the current one. But when one of those two full-fledged London doctors grabbed the other’s testicle and then loaded increasingly annoying weights on it, he did it not for perverse delight, but for science.
Continuing a long tradition of scientific self-experimentationWoollard and Carmichael had a good model to learn from. Both were interested in the work of Henry Head, an English neurologist who had done research on pain at the beginning of the 20th century. severing the nerves in his own arms to study their regeneration.
By studying the nervous mechanisms responsible for pain, Head had tried to explain the so-called referred pain, a phenomenon that still occupies neuroscientists today. It consists of pain that is sometimes felt in areas of the body far from the viscera where the painful stimulus is produced; a classic example is pain in the left arm during a myocardial infarction. Another typical case is the so-called phantom limb pain, which people with amputations feel in the limb they have lost.
Studying the skin lesions caused by herpes zoster, Head explained the referred pain through a nervous circuit that linked certain regions and viscera with the same segment of the spinal cord. But Head’s proposal was not generally accepted by other scientists, so Woollard and Carmichael decided test another system, for which they chose “a suitable viscera” and “accessible to research”, as both would write in their study, published in 1933 in the journal Brain.
Pull, smash, pinch and prod
Until the time of that testicular decision, the careers of both doctors had run through normal and eminent channels. Woollard, born in 1889, was an Australian military doctor posted to Europe during the First World War, wounded in action and decorated. At the end of the war he settled in London, where he specialized in anatomy and forged a brilliant career at University College London and other British institutions, with stays in the US and in his native country.
For his part, Carmichael, born in Edinburgh in 1896, inherited the medical profession from his father, but like his colleague he left his country to serve in the war, after which he specialized in neurology in London. Both scientists reached high professional levels and obtained honors and recognition, which earned them obituaries in prestigious scientific journals, Woollard’s death in 1939 and Carmichael’s in 1978.
However, none of these posthumous biographical sketches mentioned the collaboration between the two, or explained how they met or how long they worked together. And, of course, much less does it reveal to us when, in what way or under what circumstances one of them proposed to the other something in these or similar terms: And what if we crush our testicles…?
But they did, in the way they explained in their study: one of them he lay with his legs apart, and then… “The testicle was pulled into the scrotal sac and held on the fingers placed under it,” Woollard and Carmichael detailed. “On the testicle a balance plate was placed, and the weights placed on it compressed the testicle and the epididymis between the fingers and the plate. On the plate they placed known weights and they were left there until the subject described what sensations he experienced and where he felt them”.
With this scheme, the two scientists carried out a whole series of experiments, in both testicles and with a range of weights from 50 grams to a kilo and a half. But since the objective of the study was to investigate referred pain, the procedure included alternative nerve blockade by injecting the anesthetic novocaine into the testicles and penis to check the sensation, both in the crushed organs and in other regions. of the body. To test the sensitivity of the testicles after administration of anesthesia, the researchers also applied pinching and pricking with pins.
And after all this, the results: the sensations registered by the researchers varied from “no feeling” for lighter weights, through “serious nuisance”, to “strong pain” in the testicle or in the groin, depending not only on the particular anesthetized nerve, but even if it was the right or left gonad: “this is quite different from the case of the left”, was the terse statement of the subject during a compression of his right testicle weighing 825 grams. All this described in aseptic terms, and without at least the study revealing any departure from the traditional British phlegm with some oath or blasphemy.
In conclusion, the study by Woollard and Carmichael confirmed Head’s hypothesis, in the sense that referred pains appeared in regions linked to the same segment of the spinal cord as the nerves involved in the transmission of testicular sensation. But curiously, one last observation is derived from the experiments of the two scientists, and that is that even by anesthetizing nerves it is really difficult to completely annul the pain caused by pressing the testicles.
In summary, we could say that this study, unfairly omitted from its authors’ obituaries, earns Woollard and Carmichael extra credit for their work. sacrifices for science. But in reality, it would be fairer to say that it makes only one of the two worthy; in their work, they wrote: “It was decided that one of us would act as the subject and the other as the observer.” The problem is that we do not know, and may never know, who was the torturer and who was tortured. This was a secret that they both took to the grave, with a pair.