Werner Forssmann, perhaps the maddest of all mad scientists!

Werner Forßmann, looking like a distinguished Nobel prize winner and not a crazed lunatic who happened to change the history of cardiology.

Werner Forßmann, looking like a distinguished Nobel prize winner and not a crazed lunatic who happened to change the history of cardiology.

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.

Werner's revolutionary X-ray. The catheter is the thin black line advancing inward from his left arm.

Werner’s revolutionary X-ray. The catheter is the thin black line advancing inward from his left arm.

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.

An artist's depiction of what was clearly meant to be a later-day Werner Forsmann.

An artist’s depiction of what was clearly meant to be a later-day Werner Forsmann.

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!


About Dave

Based out of San Diego, California. Co-founder of the Blog of Funny Names. funnynamesblog.wordpress.com
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29 Responses to Werner Forssmann, perhaps the maddest of all mad scientists!

  1. markbialczak says:

    Crazy, yes. Of course Werner could not give his heart procedure to Greta, for he was saving it for Elsbet. Politics. Sexual preferences. Big prizes! Mind your p’s and eventually find peace!! Dang, Dave, funny names and so much more.

  2. wdydfae says:

    Like they said in Blues Brothers’ Apocalypse Now, I love the smell of Nazi swine cardiologist urologist lumberjack POWs in the morning.

  3. Arto says:

    A lumberjack! What, did he relocate to Kamloops, B.C. or something? What a great move!

    • Dave says:

      I’m not sure if Kamloops is a real lumberjack mecca, but it should be! Kamloops, where we’re lumberjacks and we’re OK!

  4. I still don’t understand why mad scientists are always angry.

    • Dave says:

      Very good point. I think they must be just very obsessed with solving their problem, and frustrated that people seem to be getting in the way. That’s my best guess!

  5. kerbey says:

    I cringed as I read that entire thing, revisiting the Pulp Fiction scene. You’d think a doctor wrote this or something. I was just waiting for you to say, “and then after he shoved it into his heart, he figured he’d shove it into his urethra.” Knut, Bernd, Renate? Those aren’t even words. But I guess I have to thank Bernd, since my husband has undergone lithotripsy more than once for painful kidney stones.

    • Dave says:

      Haha, sorry to make you cringe so much, but I absolutely loved that comment. Thank goodness he didn’t shove it into his urethra after! I love it when funny named people have kids with equally funny names, or perhaps even funnier. Bernd and Knut have such odd consonant combinations, they’re the kind of names I just love because they look like a bad rack of scrabble tiles!

  6. Is that a blood is thicker than water, with his kids going into medicine as well?

  7. ksbeth says:

    dick w richards stands out for me here, and i am dizzy with mad scientist crazy – great post

    • Dave says:

      Haha, “Dick W. Richards” – I never even thought of that awesome nickname. So much mad scientist crazy!!! Hopefully you enjoyed reading it as much as I loved writing this post!

  8. wdydfae says:

    We have to do a revision of the lumberjack song

    I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK
    I sleep all night and I work all day
    I tie down nurses, anesthetize them, stick catheters up my arm
    I march to Nazi rallies, who can resist my charms?

  9. wdydfae says:

    “. . . among the very best posts on Nazi cardiologist urologist lumberjack POWs to appear this season . . .”

    “. . . Dave takes a familiar, even hackneyed topic, the Nazi cardiologist urologist lumberjack POW, and somehow makes it seem fresh and new. Bravo! . . .”

    “. . . Dave’s treatment of, well, let’s face it, a pretty darn humdrum subject–Nazi cardiologist urologist lumberjack POWs–develops an unexpected spin. When Dave is finished we feel that the world may not be quite what it seems, and that tying down and anesthetizing nurses and self-administered catheters may not be the drab, everyday occurrence we so often took for granted but something deeper, something even . . . weird . . .

    • Dave says:

      Haha, I’m so glad my post on Nazi cardiologist urologist lumberjack POWs helped reboot the blurb machine. Plus, maybe my favorite blurb ever!! SO GOOD!!!!

  10. Liz says:

    excuse my while I pull myself together after reading diddy’s blurbs. Fantastico. Interesting fellow, that Forssmann. We could even say a tad unethical. But he did what he needed to do and more folks should follow his example. Well, not exactly his example because that’s just gross. But more folks should find a way to make their dreams realities. Here’s to you doing just that, Dave 🙂 Good luck with all that lies ahead.

    • Dave says:

      Thank you Liz! I told you this post would be a fun one 🙂 Werner Forssmann is a fun fellow in the history of medicine!

  11. Great post! Kind of creepy, especially when I read his last name as Foreskin. I really do need to get my eyes checked.

  12. Marti says:

    Wow, what a determined individual. Those crazy Germans! (I can say that, being of German origin)

  13. J. Forßmann says:

    Elsbet’s name is really Elsbeth. Here and there are some s’es missing. But great you spelled my aunt’s, father’s and uncles’ names with our weird letter ß. I enjoyed the read, thanks for that.

    • Dave says:

      Thank you! We always love it when people who know the subject visit and comment! I learned about Dr. Forßmann in a medical school class and was fascinated by his story. A truly remarkable man, and in fact, it’s a very impressive, remarkable family! Thank you for visiting!

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