In 1929, German physician Werner Forssmann put himself under local anesthesia and inserted a catheter into a vein in his arm.

Not minding the risk the catheter might cause if it pierced a vein, Forssmann put his life at risk. However, Forssmann was successful and he safely passed the catheter into his heart. A rare feat in the field of medicine where a man was able to “touch his own heart”.

Forssmann’s Early Career

In 1956, Werner Forssmann shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine (with Andre Cournand and Dickinson Richards) to develop a heart catheterization technique. The technique allowed physicians to diagnose and treat heart conditions much more effectively than before.

Dr. Werner Forssmann (August 29, 1904 – June 1, 1979)/Public Domain.

Forssmann went to the University of Berlin to study medicine. He also went to the University Medical Clinic for his clinical training after passing his State Examination in 1929 where he worked under Professor Georg Klemperer and under Professor Rudolph Fick, he studied anatomy. In 1929, he went to the August Victoria Home in Eberswalde near Berlin for clinical instruction in surgery.

He performed the first human cardiac catheterization in 1929 in Eberswalde. Far from imagination, the inspiration of Dr. Forssmann to conduct what is now called cardiac catheterization came from a drawing in his physiology textbook depicting a long, thin tube inserted in the jugular vein of a horse and directed into the heart of the animal with balloon-assisted intracardiac pressure measurements. Dr. Werner Forssmann suggested touching man’s heart — not through the jugular, but through the veins in the arm crease that was more open.

Touching the Heart

He wasn’t allowed to do his experiment by the doctor. Ignoring his chief of staff, Werner Forssman convinced Gerda Ditzen, the operating room nurse in charge of the sterile materials, to support him. She agreed, but only on the promise that rather than on himself, he would do it on her. But, by strapping her to the operating table, Forssmann tricked her and tried to anesthetize and cut her arm locally while doing it on himself.

Before releasing Ditzen (who realized the catheter was not in her arm at this point) and asking her to call the X-ray clinic, Forssman anesthetized his own lower arm in the cubital region while inserting a uretic catheter into his antecubital vein, threading it partly. He walked some distance on the floor below to the X-ray department where, under the direction of a fluoroscope, he progressed the full 60 cm of the catheter into his right ventricular cavity. This was then captured on an X-Ray video that showed the catheter lying in his right atrium.


The head clinician at Eberswalde acknowledged Werner’s finding when the X-rays were shown, although initially very annoyed; he allowed Forssmann to perform another catheterization on a terminally ill woman whose condition improved after being administered drugs in this way. For Werner Forssmann, under Ferdinand Sauerbruch, an unpaid role was established at the Berlin Charité Hospital.

The Sauerbruch chamber was developed by German Prof. Dr. Ferdinand Sauerbruch, a pressure chamber for open thorax operation, which he demonstrated in 1904. This invention was a breakthrough in thorax medicine and allowed heart and lung operations to be performed at significantly lower risk.

He invented many new types of limb prostheses as a frontline surgeon during World War I, which for the first time allowed basic movements to be performed with the patient’s remaining muscle.

Andre Cournand, Dickinson Richards, and Werner Forssmann shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1956.

Nevertheless, Werner Forssmann was fired for proceeding without his permission after he submitted his paper to Sauerbruch. Sauerbruch commented, “You certainly can’t start surgery that way.” His surgical skills have certainly been noted, but after being fired by several other hospitals he found it difficult to find a job because he didn’t meet scientific expectations or because he didn’t respect hospital policies. He left cardiology after marrying Dr. Elsbet Engel, a urology specialist in 1933, and took up urology. He then studied urology at the Rudolf Virchow Hospital in Berlin under Karl Heusch. He was later appointed Director of the Surgical Clinic at the Dresden-Friedrichstadt City Hospital and the Robert Koch Hospital in Berlin.

Death and Legacy

Werner Forssmann was a member of the Nazi Party from 1932 to 1945, and he became a medical officer at the beginning of World War II. He rose to the rank of Major in the course of his service until he was captured and put in a U.S. POW camp. He worked as a lumberjack and then with his wife as a country doctor in the Black Forest after his release in 1945. In 1950, he began to practice in Bad Kreuznach as a urologist.

During his time in prison, Werner Forssmann’s paper was read by André Frédéric Cournand and Dickinson W. Richards where they found ways to apply his approach to treatment and research into heart disease. He was awarded the German Academy of Sciences’ Leibniz Medal in 1954.

Ignaz Semmelweis
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Cournand, Richards, and Forssmann shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1956. He was awarded the title of Honorary Professor of Surgery and Urology at the University of Mainz after winning the Nobel Prize. He died from heart failure in 1979, 50 years after his groundbreaking experiment, in Schopfheim, Germany. He was 74.

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Radeska, T. (2016, September 12). Werner Forssmann – the Nobel winner who performed the first human cardiac catheterization… on himself. Retrieved from

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