The Hero Who Saved Lives By Pumping Hydrogen Gas Into His Own Anus

Nicholas Senn preparing to operate. Image credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Medical history is full of unsung heroes who put in that little bit extra effort for science and humanity, with different degrees of success.

Take for example 19th-century American doctor Stubbins Ffirth, who believed that yellow fever wasn't an infectious disease, and set out to prove it in the most disgusting manner imaginable.

First, he collected various fluids from the infected. He then made a wound in his arm and poured in some vomit, before pouring it into his eyeballs and then drinking it. After not being infected, he moved on to experimenting with patients' blood, saliva, and urine. Of course, it turned out it was an infectious disease. He didn't get ill, but only because he had collected his fluids from patients in the last stages of the disease when it was no longer infectious. He had been chugging puke for absolutely no reason at all.

Then, there's Dr Nicholas Senn, an absolute hero who focussed on chugging from the opposite end, so to speak. Let's not beat about the bush, he pumped a large amount of hydrogen gas into his anus all in the name of medicine. 

Senn was an American surgeon who served in the Spanish-American War of 1898. At the time, when X-rays were not widespread, bullet wounds to the abdomen where the intestines or stomach were perforated were incredibly difficult to diagnose and locate. This was somewhat of a problem, given that without prompt treatment "gunshot injuries of the small intestines [...] without exception resulted in death".

Senn had seen far too many deaths of this type when he came up with a plan: he would begin to inflate the mortally wounded like a balloon.

"It occurred to him that a wound in the stomach or intestine should be sought for in some such way as a plumber locates a leak in a gas pipe," a paper on the topic says. 

While a lot of you would dismiss inflating patients as a mad idea, this is because you lack the vision of a pioneer, and, to be fair, the willingness to pump gas into an anus. Senn had both of these in spades, and immediately set to work.

"The first object to be accomplished was to prove the permeability of the entire gastro-intestinal canal to inflation of air." That's medical speak for "I'm about to get a pipe and pop it up the old rectum".

Previous experiments had shown that pumping water up there was a bad idea, including one where "the small intestine of a child on being subjected to over-distension ruptured". Senn opted to use hydrogen, figuring it wasn't an irritant on tissues and could be detected quite easily by setting it alight. As a bonus, any fire would merely cauterize the wound.

He first tried it on some poor unsuspecting dogs, placing some of them under anesthetic and some of them not, before inflating them like unsuspecting balloon dogs. It was a success, in that "all animals not killed immediately after the experiment recovered".

As part of a series of experiments on real human patients to prove its effectiveness and safety, and partly because he was a bit curious about what it felt like, Senn inflated himself.

"Nearly 6 liters of gas were insufflated per rectum. The distention of the colon caused simply a feeling of distention along its course, but as soon as the gas escaped into the ileum colicky pains were experienced, which increased as insufflation advanced, and only ceased after all the gas had escaped, which was the case only after an hour and a half," he wrote.

"When the intestines and the stomach had become fully distended the feeling of distention was distressing, and was attended by a sensation of faintness which caused a profuse clammy perspiration. A great deal of the gas escaped by eructation, which was followed by great relief. The colicky pains attending the inflation of the small intestines by air or gas are evidently caused by increased peristaltic action of the bowels in their attempt to expel their contents, as it always assumed an intermittent type and subsided promptly after the escape of the gas."

In essence, it was safe and felt like colic, and was relieved by farting out hydrogen. Ah, science.

The first patient with a gunshot wound he tried it on – a 27-year-old man who had been shot with a pistol – did not survive. However, it did prove to be a useful tool in locating wounds, saving many, many lives before X-ray technology became widespread, meaning that the wounded no longer had to be inflated via the rectum.

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