In past generations, there were a surprising number of researchers who were willing to risk their own health, even their lives, in pursuit of discovery. I’ve covered a few on this blog, including Werner Forssman, who stuck a needle into his own heart, and Stubbins Ffirth, who ate the vomit of yellow fever sufferers.
The craziest of them all, however, may have been U.S. Air Force Officer John Paul Stapp (1910-1999) who subjected himself to the most extreme g-forces ever voluntarily experienced by a human being — multiple times.
(Stapp in uniform, via Wikipedia.)
Stapp became a doctor in the Air Force in 1944. At that time, there was an urgent need to understand the physiological effects of deceleration on humans to make aircraft safer. To quote Wikipedia,
When he began his research in 1947, the aerospace conventional wisdom was that a man would suffer fatally around 18 g. Stapp shattered this barrier in the process of his progressive work, experiencing more “peak” g-forces voluntarily than any other human. Stapp suffered repeated and various injuries including broken limbs, ribs, detached retina, and miscellaneous traumas which eventually resulted in lifelong lingering vision problems caused by permanently burst blood vessels in his eyes.
Stapp made himself the subject of 29 deceleration experiments of increasing severity. Many if not all of these were made using a rocket sled that would accelerate its subjects to speeds of hundreds of mph over a 2000-foot track, and decelerate them along the last 45 feet.
(Stapp on the rocket sled, via Wikipedia.)
In December of 1954, Stapp took his fastest ride, achieving an average speed of 632 mph and a peak deceleration of 46.2 g’s of force. This run left him temporarily blinded and otherwise a physiological wreck — though he got (mostly) better. You can watch a video from the History Channel about it here which — warning — shows Stapp in the aftereffects of his feat.
Stapp also earned the nickname “The Fastest Man on Earth” because of his record-breaking ride.
Stapp’s research resulted in dramatically improved safety harnesses for pilots, but he didn’t stop there — he became an advocate for automobile seat belts in an era when they were not required.
As one oddly might expect from someone engaged in such dangerous work, Stapp was known for his sense of humor. He even wrote a book in 1992 collecting his witticisms, “For Your Moments of Inertia From Levity to Gravity.”
Odd to think that our modern mundane seat belts have their origins in part in the near-insane death-defying feats of a man on a rocket sled!