Health and Medicine

The Doctor Who Tied A Nurse To A Surgical Table, Fought Another Doctor, Then Won A Nobel Prize


James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockMar 18 2021, 16:15 UTC
A catheter inserted into a patent's chest

A catheter inserted into a patient's chest. Image credit: BelezaPoy/

History is full of doctors and scientists who went the extra mile in the name of science and experimented on themselves, from the doctor who pumped hydrogen gas into his own anus to save thousands of lives to the physician who smuggled thousands of parasites back to the US inside his own semen.


However, it's pretty rare that they go on to win Nobel Prizes for their trouble, even when their experiments aren't limited to that special region just below the belt. One man who bagged himself science's top prize was Werner Forssmann, who had to perform his self-experiment under extremely challenging circumstances and was fired for his troubles.

In 1929, Forssmann was a surgical resident working in an Eberswalde hospital, just north of Berlin. He believed that it would be possible to catheterize the heart by inserting the tube into a vein in your elbow, and push it through until it reaches into your heart. At the time, this seemed like a completely unhinged suggestion, on par with the first person who suggested sucking on cow teats to see what the cow juice was like. Senior doctors dismissed his idea, believing it would kill any patient willing to undergo the process.

But Forssmann wasn't to be deterred. Rejecting his medical chief's suggestion to attempt experimentation on animals first, he decided to perform the procedure upon himself. This also happened to be against the explicit instructions of his boss – but when you're about to become the first person to jam a tube into your own heart against all medical advice, you're probably not the kind of person who's too bothered by consequences.

In order to do his experiment, there was one permission he did need: the operating room nurse. Without Gerda Ditzen's approval, he wouldn't be able to get access to the surgical instruments and local anesthetic he needed. A few weeks later she was convinced by his idea. So convinced, in fact, that she volunteered to have the procedure performed on herself.


Ditzen wanted to be sat for the procedure, but Forssmann convinced her to lie down on a surgical table, which he claimed was in case of side effects from the anesthesia. He strapped her legs and arms to the table and began to prep her for the procedure. Only, when she wasn't looking, he applied the anesthetic to his own arm, knowing full well he wasn't going to perform the procedure on anyone but himself.

He continued to pretend to prep her for catheterization while he waited for the anesthetic to kick in. The moment he felt it, he cut his own arm and pushed the catheter 30 centimeters (12 inches) into his own vein, and asked her to call the x-ray nurse, who he would need for the next part of the procedure.

It was only at this point that Ditzen realized that the catheter was in the wrong person's arm. She protested, but ultimately led him down to the x-ray department below, where he was about to fight another doctor. As he attempted to x-ray himself in order to see where the catheter had reached, his friend Peter Romeis in turn attempted to yank the catheter out of his vein, in an attempt to save his life. 


Forssmann was able to fight him off – who knew that when attempting to advance cardiology the skill you really need is to know the art of combat – and x-rayed himself, finding that the tube had reached his shoulder joint. He pushed it in further until 60 centimeters (24 inches) was inside his vein, and he had reached his goal: the ventricular cavity.

The head clinician at Eberswalde was initially livid with Forssmann for his actions, before being presented with the x-ray, which he congratulated. After this, he was allowed to perform the procedure again, this time on a terminally ill patient as a method of delivering drugs. However, when he published the results of his further self-experimentation he was fired immediately and thrown out of the hospital, told that this was no way to begin a career as a surgeon.

Following this, he took up positions as a urologist, before becoming a military surgeon and Major in World War 2. Let's not beat about the bush here, though he made great progress for medicine, he was, undeniably, a Nazi, having actively joined the party in 1932 before joining the war effort. He was taken prisoner in the war, before briefly becoming a lumberjack and then returning to medicine as a country doctor.


It came as some surprise to him when, over 20 years after his experiments, he received a Nobel Prize. While he had been imprisoned, doctors André Frédéric Cournand and Dickinson W. Richards read his work and developed it further, applying it to heart disease diagnosis and research. For his part, he was named as co-winner of the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

“I feel like a village parson who has just learned that he has been made bishop," he said. "It seems that sometimes, there is a measure of justice in our world," he reportedly added.

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