When science breaks bad: A rogues’ gallery of history’s worst scientists


It’s all bad —

A new book catalogs some of the greatest ethical lapses done in the name of science.

Diana Gitig

Ghoulish book cover for The Icepick Surgeon.

Enlarge / You’re not supposed to have words inside you.

Walter Freeman was ambidextrous, so he could do two lobotomies at the same time. These involved jabbing two icepicks from the junk drawer in his kitchen into the eye sockets of two different patients until he felt the thin orbital bones behind their eyes crack. Swishing the picks back and forth was then all it took to sever each patient’s frontal lobe from her limbic system, unhooking her executive function and judgement from her emotions and appetites. Yes, it was usually a her.

Although he got the dubious honor of having this nifty book named for him, Dr. Freeman is not even the worst among the gallery of rogues profiled by Sam Kean in his new book The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science. Freeman wasn’t a Nazi, and he wasn’t a slaver. It’s hard to beat those populations for bad guys.

Breaking bad

Sam Kean has a thing for scientific malfeasance. His previous books have touched on it, but this one is entirely dedicated to mad scientists—monomaniacs who kept their eye on the prize to the exclusion of all else, like pain, suffering, and morals. Occasionally, the prize was data; more often it was fame and fortune. But regardless of their motives, these guys (yes, it was usually a him) brushed aside any ethical qualms they may have had if those qualms interfered with their research program or whatever hypothesis they were chasing down. This book addresses why and how they did so.

One idea Kean harps on is that most mad scientist types don’t even do good science. They are willing to lie about their results—and also torture and murder people—to make their case. So they certainly aren’t all that concerned with things like control groups or accurate record keeping. (Although Nazis were nothing if not meticulous.)

Each chapter deals with scientists who committed a different crime, and somewhat strangely, the Nazis are filed under Oath-Breaking. Almost half of all German doctors at the time were Nazi Party members, and they applied their Hippocratic Oath of doing no harm to the body politic rather than to particular (undesirable) individuals.

Nazi doctors were concerned about German soldiers at the front who might get cold and wanted to learn how best to treat hypothermia. So they held Jews and political prisoners in ice baths until their victims’ limbs froze and then tried to revive them. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, they found that the best treatment was not to warm them slowly by covering them in blankets, as had been done up to that point, but rather to warm them quickly in hot water.

This experiment will never be repeated (hopefully). So what do we do with the data, which is the best available on how to treat hypothermia? Is using it akin to tacitly excusing the experiments? Is it like tainted evidence that couldn’t be used in a trial? Or is using it a way to make the victims’ torture and death mean something?

Don’t other the Nazis

Nazis are convenient villains; almost everyone agrees that they were bad, and, since we would never do what they did, we can easily dismiss them. Which is another point Kean harps on: it is tempting to condemn all of the guys he profiles as sickos, or monsters, or just outliers and then not have to deal with them. But he notes that many of his non-Nazi subjects did lots of good things in the rest of their lives—not just they were good husbands and fathers, but they actually did really good things for humanity.

Take John Cutler, who brought OB-GYNs from developing countries for training in the US so they could go home and save women’s lives and was one of the few doctors in the 1980s who did not demonize gay victims of the AIDS crisis. He also knowingly infected women in Guatemala with STDs for an experiment he ran for the US Public Health Service.

In Kean’s view, there’s another risk of putting Nazis in their own category and thereby dismissing them as irrelevant: we then might not recognize how easy it is for many people to justify their actions at each step along the way until their good intentions lead them to some very bad places. Like Henry Smeathman, an English naturalist in 1771. If you were an English naturalist in 1771 and you wanted to collect specimens from the tropics, you had to go on a slave ship; those were the only ships that went. But once Smeathman was in Sierra Leone, if he wanted company, most of the people with whom he could really associate were slavers. And if he wanted to trade with them, the most convenient currency were the Africans helping him with his work. So, he sold them.

Was everybody bad?

Bad, bad, bad. No excuses for Smeathman, who was actually an abolitionist before he went. But what about Newton? He sat alone in his room at Cambridge, predicting that the Moon’s gravitational pull causes the tides. To prove this very public prediction, he needed data about the tides. And again, almost all English ships plying the waters at the time were slave ships. So that’s where he got his data.

Should we boycott calculus because Newton got data collected by a slave ship? He may not have actively shackled any Africans, but he certainly benefited from the evil, powerful slave trade system that ruled his world. Is he equivalent to a Nazi? Or is he more equivalent to scientists (and everyone else) today who analyze their data on computers when they know that the manufacture of those computers denudes the Earth and demeans laborers?

Kean did a ton of research for this book, the bulk of which seems to have ended up in it. Which is fine; editing is hard. But it gets to be a lot sometimes. I didn’t really need the digression on 18th-century golf and the many quotations from primary 17th-century documents to convince me that he’d done his homework. And any anecdotes he uncovered that somehow didn’t make it into the book are relayed in his podcast, which he plugs pretty shamelessly. Which is also fine, because it’s not a bad podcast. If you expect these things might bother you, it’s probably best to skip.

The Icepick Surgeon probably raises more questions than it answers. But that’s a hallmark of good experiments—as well as good books about science and scientists.

Listing image by Little, Brown and Company

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