‘Don’t do it alone’: What Michael Mosley learnt from pushing his body to the limit in 2019

Michael Mosley, described by geneticist Giles Yeo as 'the pioneer of trying stupid crazy things for TV'
Michael Mosley, who once swallowed tapeworms for a documentary, was described by geneticist Giles Yeo as 'the pioneer of trying stupid crazy things for TV' - Nathan Williams

There are a number of unanswered questions surrounding the tragic death of Dr Michael Mosley, the television doctor and columnist, on the Greek island of Symi last week. Why did search teams in the area not find him sooner? Why did he not have his mobile phone with him, especially on a treacherous walk in the intense heat?

Mosley was no stranger to taking risks – usually on television, for the noble cause of enabling people to live better, healthier lives. One journalist called him “the great gonzo scientist of our times”. “He definitely had a sense of adventure, always wanted to try something out, and never worried about being proven wrong,” says Dr Giles Yeo, a geneticist who worked with Mosley on the BBC show Trust Me, I’m a Doctor and recently featured on Mosley’s podcast, Just One Thing. “He was the pioneer of trying stupid crazy things for TV.” This spirit of risk-taking extended beyond the professional to Mosley’s personal life, sometimes with serious consequences.

In May 2019, Mosley and his GP wife, Dr Clare Bailey Mosley, spent the weekend in Cornwall with Mosley’s older brother John. The weather was unseasonably wet and cold, but that didn’t stop the couple from taking a dip in the freezing sea.

“We’re well used to it, but after swimming around for a few minutes, we reckoned it was too chilly even for us – and challenged each other to a race back to the shore. I remember thinking: ‘I am definitely going to be able to beat Clare to the land.’ And then it all went blank,” he said at the time. “The next thing I remember is being in A&E at hospital in Truro, with Clare sitting beside me looking extremely concerned.”

Mosley with his wife Clare, pictured for Channel 4's 'Lose a Stone in 21 Days with Michael Mosley'
Mosley with his wife Clare, pictured for Channel 4's 'Lose a Stone in 21 Days with Michael Mosley' - Nick Holt

Mosley had emerged from the water confused and disorientated, asking repeatedly whether it was 2017, and whether he had passed out. His wife was concerned he had had a mini-stroke – known as a transient ischaemic attack, or TIA – which occurs when the blood flow is temporarily cut off to an area of the brain. It is not as serious as a full-blown stroke, but can be a precursor to one.

“I didn’t have any obvious signs of physical or facial weakness, nor was my speech slurred – both telltale signs of a TIA and a stroke,” he said. “By this point I was lucid and the only thing that was obviously wrong with me was the fact that I had no memory of how I’d got there, or what had happened to me.”

After he was examined, a senior doctor said that rather than a fit or a stroke, Mosley was suffering from a condition called transient global amnesia – a sudden but temporary interruption to short-term memory – brought on by cold water swimming. It is a rare condition that can be triggered by intense physical activity, sex, sudden exposure to very hot or cold water or heightened stress. After the incident, Mosley said he would not go cold water swimming alone again.

“The serious point here is, don’t go cold water swimming by yourself, particularly if you’re not used to it, because there are risks,” he said. “You know, particularly if you’re unfit, you could have a heart attack, drop dead. You could have your memory wiped. Who knows? So try and do this sort of thing with someone else.”

That was not the only time Mosley pushed his body to the limit. Throughout his TV career, he subjected himself to extreme self-experiments in the name of making science more accessible (and, of course, in the name of great TV).

For the BBC documentary Infested! he swallowed tapeworms and put a leech on his arm; for Inside the Human Body he injected himself with snake venom. He also ate a black pudding made from his own blood; took the magic mushroom hallucinogen psilocybin on camera; and had parts of his brain “switched off” by transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). These weren’t just gimmicks – Mosley insisted that “generally speaking, everything I do has a substantial basis to it”.

However, his wife vetoed some outlandish experiments, such as a plan to infect himself with pubic lice. “Clare generally [prevented] him doing anything ‘too daft’,” his friend Tim Spector wrote in this newspaper following his death. “But he did plenty of crazy stuff anyway, from eating tapeworms, to long-term fasts, to ice baths and staying awake for days on end. Channel 4 had said he couldn’t do any more cold water stunts because the insurance was becoming too high.”

It was this sense of adventure and gung-ho attitude that made him a national treasure. Added Spector: “I think this combination of recklessness and his humble, calm and self-deprecating style as he carefully explained complex science in simple terms, were why the public loved him.”