The Museum of Hoaxes

About the Mad Science Museum

A collection of strange and curious science miscellanea brought to you by the author of Elephants on Acid and Electrified Sheep
Elephants on Acid
Electrified Sheep

Joseph Barcroft’s Borderland Excursions
Throughout his career, Cambridge physiologist Joseph Barcroft conducted self-experiments in which he pushed himself to the very edge of insanity and death. He referred to these as his "borderland excursions".

Some of Barcroft's early excursions included volunteering to be exposed to hydrocyanic acid gas (aka prussic acid) during World War I. A dog in the gas chamber with him died in ninety-five seconds, but Barcroft waited ten minutes before stumbling out with the dog in his arms.

Sir Joseph Barcroft in his lab

A decade later Barcroft sealed himself inside an airtight glass chamber to test the effects of living in a low-oxygen environment. After six days in an atmosphere equivalent to that found at an altitude of 16000 feet, his entire body turned blue.

However, Barcroft's most dramatic excursion occurred in 1931 when he decided to investigate the effects of freezing on mental functioning. He stripped naked and lay down on a table in a refrigerated chamber in the Woods Hole Research Center. At first he shivered and curled up to stay warm. He found it difficult to maintain the willpower to remain in the room. He kept thinking, "I could just walk out of here now," but he persevered, and after about an hour a strange mental change occurred. All sense of modesty disappeared. Suddenly he didn't care if someone unrelated to the experiment might walk in and find him naked. The cold had turned him into a flagrant nudist.

But even more strangely, as he described to an audience at Yale University in 1936, "the sense of coldness passed away, and it was succeeded by a beautiful feeling of warmth; the word 'bask' most fitly describes my condition: I was basking in the cold."

Barcroft was probably fast approaching a state of potentially lethal hypothermia. Thankfully a research assistant outside the chamber noticed something was amiss and rushed in with a blanket and warm drink to save him. Barcroft survived his ordeal without ill effect and lived to be seventy-four, at which age he dropped dead while riding a bus.
  • Barcroft, J., & F. Verz├ír (1931). "The effect of exposure to cold on the pulse rate and respiration of man," Journal of Physiology, 71: 373-380.
  • Barcroft, J. (1938). The Brain and Its Environment. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Posted By: alex | Date: Mon Aug 01, 2011
Category: Physiology, Effects of Temperature, 1900-1949, United Kingdom, Self-Experiments,
Some other topics you might find interesting:
There are no comments yet for this post.
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.