There’s a funny thing about applying yourself to your craft. You must do it in order to be successful, but then people start thinking you’re a tad wacky.
Today’s subject was such a character, and his increasingly insane behavior led him all the way from POW camp to the Nobel Prize.
Werner Forssmann was born in Germany in 1904, and at age 25, he graduated medical school at the University of Berlin and passed the State Examination in 1929. Not even a year out of medical school, Forssmann postulated that a catheter could be inserted directly into the heart for various medical purposes, but the fear at the time was that such an intrusion would be fatal.
So Forssmann did what all innovative scientists do – try the procedure out on himself.
He went to extraordinary lengths to pull this off. The department chief said no, but he persuaded an OR nurse named Gerda Ditzen to assist him. She agreed, but only if he would do it on her rather than himself.
This is where it starts getting weird…
Being the scrupulous, scientific type, Forssmann decided that he would TRICK HIS ONLY SUPPORTER, by restraining nurse Ditzen to a table, and then pretending to inject local anesthetic into her arm, when he was actually anesthetizing his own arm. He then inserted a URINARY CATHETER (they didn’t have cardiac ones at the time) into his arm at the antecubital vein, then told Ms. Ditzen to call the X-ray department.
Bleeding and with a catheter in his arm, they walked over to the X-ray room, where Dr. Forssmann, aided by the fluoroscope, advanced the catheter all the way into the right ventricle of his heart, and they took X-ray images showing the catheter in his right atrium.
Werner Forssmann’s superiors were annoyed, but also impressed, and when they recognized his discovery, they let him do a catheterization to deliver drugs directly to the heart of a terminally ill woman. His reputation – both for medical insight and for being a bit unhinged – was growing, but he began to be passed over for surgical positions.
In 1933, he married Dr. Elsbet Engel, a urology specialist, and himself converted over to urology after his reputation in the cardiological field prevented him from getting work. He was successful, and later became Chief of the Surgical Clinic at 2 hospitals.
Here’s where it gets weirder…
Forsmann was a member of the Nazi Party from 1932 to 1945, and rose to the rank of Major due to his medical expertise.
During World War II, as a medical officer, he was captured and put into a U.S. POW camp. While he was in prison, Andre Frederic Cournand and Dickinson W. Richards read his paper, to develop ways of applying heart catheterization to heart disease diagnosis and research. This work later resulted in Cournand, Richards and Forßmann earning the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
After his release from prison, he worked as a LUMBERJACK, and then returned to medicine, practicing as a country doctor with his wife, then later opening a urology practice in the awesomely-named Bad Kreuznach. He later became an Honorary Professor at several top European universities, and a high-ranking member of many medical societies.
He and Elsbet had six children with cool names: Klaus Forßmann, Knut Forßmann, Jörg Forßmann, Wolf Forßmann, Bernd Forßmann, and Renate Forßmann. Two of them had impressive clinical careers – Wolf was the first to isolate the atrial natriuretic peptide (a pretty big deal), and Bernd helped develop the “lithotriptor” method of removing kidney stones acoustically – a process still used on over 1 million people in the US every year.
Werner Forssmann died in 1979, of heart failure (of all things).
What the heck?!? This story is so crazy. Happy Friday everyone!