Be Your Own Research Primate

The title is not a piece of advice, but it is descriptive of the philosophy of thousands of scientific innovators through the ages who have tried out theories, substances, and interventions on themselves. Sometimes the experiment is totally unwitting. Many important discoveries have been made through following up on accidents, by scientists who were open to exploring the implications of an unintended exposure or incident. When Albert Hofmann accidentally dosed himself with LSD, he didn’t just write it off as a bad day.

Often these scientists are on the trail of something else, and have an awareness of what experimentation does to their bodies, but don’t care. Like Marie and Pierre Curie, they know that potentially fatal damage has been done, yet they persist.

Often, the gathering of data is long-term and intensely deliberate. Santorio Santorio, an early adopter of self-experimentation — the early 1600s, in fact — was a pioneer of obesity studies. A doctor and professor who pondered the mysteries of intake and output, Santorio designed a weighing chair that apparently was quite accurate. Tim Jewell wrote:

He took detailed notes of how much he ate and how much weight he lost each day, eventually concluding that he lost half a pound each day between mealtime and toilet time.

Unable to account for how his “output” was less than his intake, he initially chalked this up to “insensible perspiration,” meaning we breathe and sweat out some of what our body digests as invisible substances.

In short, Santorio discovered metabolism, and medicine has been the better for it.

The visible man

Another example of this strange type of entrepreneur is Larry Smarr, who started as an astrophysicist and then became a computer scientist, one of the influential creators of the Internet. He moved from Illinois, “the epicenter of the obesity epidemic,” to health-worshipping Southern California and decided to shape up. About 12 years later, he was interviewed for The Atlantic by Mark Bowden, who reported,

Three or four popular books on weight loss left him mostly confused, but they did convey a central truth: losing weight was only 20 percent about exercise. The other 80 percent was about what he put in his mouth.

The entire fascinating journey is not ours to tell, and definitely worth reading in the original.

Among other things, Smarr became his own lab animal and began to carefully chart every calorie consumed and expended. The journalist noted,

When Larry works out, an armband records skin temperature, heat flux, galvanic skin response, and acceleration in three dimensions. When he sleeps, a headband monitors the patterns of his sleep every 30 seconds.

“Big deal, he has a fitness gadget. Doesn’t everyone?” Well, no, not at the time of the interview. Today, such advanced monitors are easily available to the consumer, but back then, the tools to indulge in this obsession were quite exotic, and not accessible to the average DIY enthusiast.

Suspecting that a lot of important activity goes on below the belt, Smarr outsourced the analysis of the biochemical content of his output, and routinely sent stool samples to a lab. Poop is a vast library of information that puts the Library of Congress to shame. As Smarr explained it,

There are about 100 billion bacteria per gram. Each bacterium has DNA whose length is typically one to 10 megabases — call it 1 million bytes of information. This means human stool has a data capacity of 100,000 terabytes of information stored per gram. That’s many orders of magnitude more information density than, say, in a chip in your smartphone or your personal computer.

Somewhere along the way, Smarr found that his indicators for systemic inflammation were rising — which led to an early discovery of Crohn’s disease before any symptoms manifested, and this led to a profound interest in the role of Clostridia in immune system malfunction. But overall, the interviewer reported, Smarr’s focus is on something much bigger — “for the first time in history, a scientific basis for medicine.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “For better or worse, these researchers changed science,”, undated
Source: “The Measured Man,”, August 2012
Images by J E Theriot and Henry Shi/Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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