Giles Brindley: Someone You Should Know

Note from the author: I have corrected, reorganized, and updated the material in this post and integrated it with additional information in an essay about Professor Giles Brindley and the very personal presentation of his research on chemical induction of penile erections at the 1983 Las Vegas meeting of the American Urological Association. I recommend that readers bypass the post below in favor of the newer entry on my AlignMap blog:

Professor Giles Brindley – The Ultimate Show and Tell

Professor Brindley Presents

Self-experimentation In Medical Research

Medical research has a tradition of self-experimentation. Consider, for example, this excerpt from How far would you go to advance medical research?1


The most publicized endeavor in recent times involved Australian gastroenterologist Barry Marshall, who consumed a broth containing the bacteria Helicobacter pylori in order to prove that this bacterium, not stress or hyperacidity, caused peptic ulcers. Having failed to infect animal models with H pylori, Barry Marshall used himself as the guinea pig. Snubbed by colleagues—because conventional medical wisdom said nothing could survive in the highly acidic stomach—and loathed by pharmaceutical firms, which had been selling acid blockers meant to control ulcer, Barry Marshall took this extreme step to prove his hypothesis. Barry Marshall told Career Focus: “After a particularly frustrating time while presenting a paper [in a seminar], I decided that the way to answer the sceptics was an experiment to prove the bacterium could infect a healthy person—myself. I felt a little nauseated after I drank the broth containing a suspended culture of H pylori. I then had some stomach rumblings for three days, followed by bloating and fullness after evening meals.” About five days after drinking the broth, Barry Marshall became ill, with early morning nausea, vomiting of acid free gastric juice, and “putrid” breath. Although his illness resolved spontaneously in two weeks, a gastric biopsy taken on the 10th day showed severe acute gastritis with many H pylori organisms. “After that, the experiment was repeated and several publications confirmed that the hypothesis was correct,” he recalls. H pylori infection is now recognised as the major cause of peptic ulcer disease and an important risk factor for gastric malignancy. Barry Marshall was awarded the 1995 Albert Lasker Clinical Research Award.

The same article notes that in 1929, Werner Forssmann, a German surgeon, catheterized his own heart by inserting a 65 cm cannula through a vein in his arm, then climbed a flight of stairs to the X-ray department to produce a radiograph demonstrating that the catheter was, indeed, lying in his heart. In 1951, William Harrington, a trainee Barnes Hospital in St Louis, infused himself with plasma from a patient with immune thrombocytopenic purpura to establish the condition’s immune basis. It worked. He rapidly developed severe but, as it turned out, transient thrombocytopenia. As the author notes, “His near suicidal effort showed that a plasma factor causes the destruction of platelets in chronic idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, and the disease’s autoimmune cause was established.”

While these instances are impressive, they lack a certain showmanship, especially in an era when performance artists create art by exposing and mutilating themselves in public, magicians perform stunts such as fasting for weeks locked in a glass cage, and contestants on TV shows subject themselves to fearful and humiliating situations in the hopes of winning cash and notoriety.

Which brings us to today’s Somebody You Should Know, an individual who combined his self-experimentation in the service of legitimate medical research with an undeniable flair for theatric presentation.

Not Your Usual PowerPoint Presentation

The setting is the 1983 Las Vegas meeting of the American Urological Association with a few thousand members in attendance.

Word of Dr. Giles Brindley’s research has prompted an invitation for him to present his findings. In addition, one American doubter has suggested that proof would require something “beyond charts, tables and graphs.”2

It is uncertain what that challenger had in mind, but, in any case, Brindley was equal to the task.

Brindley, a British physiologist and urologist, was an old hand at such meetings, having presented numerous papers at scientific conferences. He had, in fact, a reputation, at least in Europe, for original research, especially in bioengineering. In 1964, for example, he had devised the world’s first visual prosthesis and had implanted three pairs of electronic eyes in humans before terminating the work when the costs did not justify the results. effectiveness. Once, to explore the effects of centrifugal force on a rabbit’s ability to land on its feet, Brindley dropped a rabbit from the roof to the floor of a car (driven, one assumes, by someone else) making a sharp turn – while the car was going eighty miles an hour.

Just prior to his Las Vegas talk, Brindley, who had then been working on physiological problems of the human male, injected his penis with phenoxybenzamine, an alpha-blocking smooth muscle relaxant that works as a non-specific vasodilator.3 (A modern version of the injection kit is shown in the accompanying graphic.)

He then gave what was, by all reports, a standard (i.e., dry and dull) explanation of his research and findings, which indicated that the physiology of an erection could be manipulated such that the engorgement of the penis by increased blood flow could be enhanced by certain chemicals, producing an “erection by injection.” I cannot find a description of the audience’s response at this point, but based on my attendance at far too many standard presentations at far too many medical meetings, I suspect that, despite the potential significance of these findings, the reaction consisted of polite applause and exchanges of murmurs about lunch plans. No doubt some folks left the talk early to seek other, more interesting activities.

If so, those in the early exodus missed more than a few cluttered slides.

Dr. Brindley then revealed (1) the fact that he had injected himself with phenoxybenzamine4 and (2) the results of that action – his fully erect penis.

It is said that the audience – consisting of physicians who spent much of their professional lives performing examinations of the sort that tend to jade ones attitude toward genitalia – gasped.

“[Brindley] dropped his pants before the audience
… a very respectable erection”
Prof Alvaro Morales, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario5

“I had been wondering why Brindley was wearing sweatpants,” says Dr. Arnold Melman, chief of urology at New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who was there. “Suddenly I knew.”6

There is more.

As Dr. Irwin Goldstein, a Boston University urologist who was present for Dr. Brindley’s presentation, describes it, “He walked down the aisle and let us touch it. People couldn’t believe it wasn’t an implant.”7

Yep, Brindley, a former athlete, proved he was not fooling the urologists with a silicone prosthesis by inviting them to inspect his erect penis, which many did.

And, thus was the penile erection medicalized from a mysterious, semi-mythological, fickle symbol of manhood into a composition of flesh, arteries and veins, smooth muscle, neurons, and neurotransmitters accessible to bioengineers, chemists, and physicians.


  1. Manjulika Das. BMJ Career Focus 2004;329:142-143 []
  2. The secret history of Mr. Happy Salon.com []
  3. The physiological mechanics of the means by which a smooth muscle relaxant leads to an erection is nicely explained in the HowStuffWorks article, How Viagra Works and is ilustrated by a definitively non-lurid Quick Time clip at The Urological Sciences Research Foundation []
  4. Sir Giles, who was inexplicably knighted for bioengineering rather than erection-enhancement, had, in the course of his research, injected his penis with 33 other drugs before trying papavarine (Not tonight, dear… The Age, 25 Oct 2003) []
  5. http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2003/sexchem.shtml []
  6. Excerpt from A Mind of Its Own by David Friedman, 2001 http://www.powells.com/biblio?show=0684853205&page=excerpt []
  7. Consultants Try the Hard Sell Jill Rosenfeld. Fast Company February 2001 []

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