The mad scientist trope is one of the most common portrayals of academics in media. Science fiction, action movies, mysteries, and even fantasy, where the scientist is a mad sorcerer instead, are all packed with characters who unleash evil in their pursuit of more knowledge. Though these fictional scholars are just, well, fictional, history has shown that there is truth in the mad scientist trope.
The history of science is a graveyard — both literally and figuratively. Among the many failed inventions, disproven theories, and forgotten contributors, you’ll find sanitized records of people who were experimented on, tortured, and traumatized. These sacrifices at the altar of scientific advancement are often little more than footnotes in the careers of “great men.”
For all the suffering they brought, though, it’s hard to deny that their work didn’t change the way we understood their fields of study. These four morally dubious experiments are just a handful of the unethical experiments that shaped our world today.
Poison Squad Members Volunteered to Eat Unsafe Food to Prove We Needed Food Regulation Policies
In 1902, twelve perfectly healthy young men reached out to Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley to tell them that they would do it: they would eat poison for him.
This wasn’t a perverse cult thing where the men were brainwashed into agreeing to kill themselves. These men were informed and consenting volunteers who believed in Dr. Wiley’s campaign against the food industry’s use of unsafe preservatives that, according to the doctor, were poisonous to people.
So they consented. Why are they on a list of unethical experiments? Because if you’ve ever tried to get an experiment approved by a university ethics committee, you’ll know that one of the things they guard against is unnecessarily risky experiments. Having your participants eat poison when you could take the time to do it safely in a lab is the definition of unnecessarily risky.
But Dr. Wiley had his reasons. Two decades before he began looking for volunteers for his “Hygenic Table Trials,” he became a chief chemist at the Department of Agriculture. He probably thought this was his chance to make a difference so he made several proposals to experiment on common food items. Dr. Wiley believed America was being deceived into eating poison. The food industry lobbyists were not having it. Dr. Wiley saw his proposals get ignored or outright rejected.
Fast forward to 1902, after obtaining a budget of $5,000 and a carte blanche from the department, he put up advertisements looking for people willing to ingest poison. To his surprise, Dr. Wiley was flooded with letters from would-be participants.
Thus, the “Poison Squad” was born. For six months, this team of twelve men would eat three meals a day while keeping a close eye on their vitals. Each morning, the men would have coffee spiked with borax. If they had, say, a steak for dinner, they could count on there being formaldehyde in the meat. Formaldehyde: the same chemical used to preserve corpses.
Dr. Wiley increased the doses of poison to see just how much it would take for the men to start feeling adverse effects. To his credit, none of the participants died.
Dr. Wiley and his Poison Squad became famous for their dramatic stunt of an experiment which lead to their name being used by brands as a proof of safety. One newspaper ad for tea proudly told consumers that Dr. Wiley and his Poison Squad weren’t drinking their tea because it wasn’t poisoned.
The team’s efforts paid off in 1906 with the passing of the Pure Food and Drugs Act which provided restrictions on the adulteration of food and mandated proper food and drug labeling. As one of the first modern laws of its kind, the Pure Food and Drugs Act forms the backbone of today’s food safety regulations.
J. Marion Sims Advanced Modern Gynecology by Experimenting on Enslaved Women
While he’ll always be known as the father of modern gynecology, J. Marion Sims will also be remembered for an unsavory caveat of that legacy: he experimented on enslaved black women who obviously did not consent to being used as guinea pigs. Oh, and he often didn’t give them anesthesia while he was tinkering with their lady parts.
On April 18, 2018, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio relented to demands from activists by having J. Marion Sims’ statue in Central Park removed. The statue, which was located just a few feet from the New York Academy of Medicine, was then moved to Green-Wood Cemetery. Just a day after it had been placed there, the statue was re-relocated to the cemetery’s storage space.
Okay, so we know experimenting on unwilling enslaved women without anesthesia is unethical, but just how bad was it?
A paper published by the Journal of Medical Ethics in 2006 had this to say: “his initial attempts to cure vesicovaginal fistulas were carried out on a group of enslaved African American women whom he quartered in a small hospital behind his house in Montgomery, Alabama. Between late 1845 and the summer of 1849, he carried out repeated operations on these women in a dogged effort to repair their injuries. One young woman, a slave named Anarcha with a particularly difficult combination vesicovaginal and rectovaginal fistula, underwent 30 operations before Sims was able to close the holes in her bladder and rectum.”
But the paper’s author, L.L Wall, asks us to analyze our presumption of guilt for Dr. Sims. Now, before anyone grabs the pitchforks, I’m not saying “racism good.” Picking apart the facts of what happened and critics’ claims about Sims are not equivalent to that. L.L Wall asks us to answer this: Why do we presume that the women, who already had vesicovaginal fistulas, would not want to be cured and, therefore, not have wanted to undergo treatment?
“In alleging that it is unethical for slaves to participate in any form of medical experimentation, Ojanuga and other writers seem to imply that it would never have been appropriate for slaves to undergo innovative surgical operations, no matter what their problems might have been,” L.L Wall writes.
Wall’s paper brings up a lot of good points that, honestly, will now be keeping me up for the next couple of nights. Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
John B. Watson Traumatized a Child to Test His Theories on Behavioral Conditioning
The early behaviorists made innumerable key discoveries about the way we learn and their findings form the basis of today’s cognitive-behavioral psychology. If that term is familiar to you, that’s because cognitive-behavioral therapy is one of the most well-studied and consistently effective methods for treating mental illness today.
Like virtually all fields of study concerned with human health, however, it has a morally dubious history.
John B. Watson, the father of behaviorism, made a bold claim in the early 20th century: people, he said, learned from their environment. While that doesn’t sound new to us now, it was a major departure from established psychological schools of thought in his time. The guy was competing with Freudian psychoanalysis, but he wasn’t about to let Freud’s scientifically questionable theories get in the way of proper testing.
Watson once wrote in an article titled “The Behaviorist Manifesto,” “Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Introspection forms no essential part of its methods, nor is the scientific value of its data dependent upon the readiness with which they lend themselves to interpretation in terms of consciousness. The behaviorist, in his efforts to get a unitary scheme of animal response, recognizes no dividing line between man and brute.”
So he grabbed a toddler and traumatized him.
John B. Watson introduced the kid in his studies as “Little Albert.” In his experiment, the 9-month-old toddler was placed in a room with a white rat and other furry items that shared the rats’ texture. Every time the toddler played with the rat, Watson would follow it with a loud noise.
The toddler began to associate the feelings of fear he felt when he heard the noise with the white rat and, eventually, the furry toys. After a while, Watson had him shitting his pants from just being near the rat or the toys.
Under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be a problem as it’s possible to recondition or decondition the subject. If you’ve tried renaming a dog, you’ll know what that’s like. Here’s the thing, though: Watson did neither.
The Little Albert experiment is one of the legends of the field of psychology, so you have to wonder: what happened to Little Albert? In all the classes I’ve sat through, it always seemed as if Watson completely forgot about him once he got his results.
A team of Appalachian State University psychologists and students had the same question and for seven years, they scoured records in search of Little Albert.
His real name turned out to be Douglas Merritte. His mother was an employee at John Hopkins University’s hospital at the time Watson was working there. Watson gave her a whopping $1 for the child’s participation in the experiment.
As to whether he stayed traumatized for the rest of his life, no one would know. Not even his mother. Douglas died at the age of six due to hydrocephalus, a condition that fills the ventricles of the brain with excess fluid.
The Inventor of Retin-A Burned, Scarred, and Exposed Prisoners to Agent Orange
It’s easy to cause moral outrage when it’s enslaved women and babies who are being experimented on. But would you give the same level of sympathy to convicts?
My fellow adult acne sufferers who are reading this, I have a question for you: Have you ever used Retin-A, a.k.a tretinoin? Because if you have, you’ve been using medication tested on prisoners by Albert M. Kligman. Aside from acne medication testing, he infected prisoners at Holmesburg Prison, Philadelphia with athlete’s foot. Oh, and dioxin, the thing that made Agent Orange deadly.
Let’s have a quick history lesson.
Agent Orange was the infamous herbicide that the U.S Air Force sprayed on Vietnamese forests, rice fields, and civilians during the Vietnam War. Years after the war, Agent Orange is still causing Vietnamese children to be with gruesome deformities. Word of warning: don’t click that link if you have a weak stomach.
Back to Kligman. Kligman was infecting prisoners with dioxin to research its effects on human skin. At the time, dioxin’s only known effect was a skin condition called chloracne. But there were suspicions that the chemical was leaving veterans with cancer and giving their children birth defects. Kligman’s mission was to find the minimum exposure that caused chloracne.
Adrianne Jones-Alston, whose father was one of the prisoners Kligman experimented on, shared the effects that dioxin had on her father with The Philadelphia Inquirer.
“I remember when I was around age 5, my father’s behavior and appearance after his incarceration and Kligman’s guinea pig experiments changed dramatically. His skin smelled burnt and his back gradually took on the appearance of a map.”
The victims’ families and activists called for a formal apology and reparations.
The dermatologist passed away in 2010 at the age of 93. Even back in 1983, he refused to talk to the media about his work.
But he did get on the phone to tell the New York Times this: “All those people could have leukemia now – about one chance in 20 billion. And I could be hit by an asteroid when I walk out on the street, but I don’t think I will.”