Animal Shocks, Lobotomies, and Other Stories of Bad Science

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ICEPICK SURGERY
Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy and Other Horrible Acts in the Name of Science
by Sam Kean

Here’s something you probably didn’t learn in your school’s history classes: The great Thomas Edison and his colleagues were involved in the killing of 44 dogs, six calves, and two horses in their attempt to portray changing current technology as inherently more dangerous. Direct current technology pioneered by Edison.

This massacre is one of many stories told by Sam Kean in “Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Horrible Things Perpetrated in the Name of Science.”

“Icepick Surgeon” is Kean’s sixth book. His previous work explored the fun and sometimes frightening side of science. Now he is giving us evil. “This book explores what drives men and women to commit crimes and misdemeanors in the name of science,” he writes, explaining that “sometimes obsessions get them.” They turn everything upside down and turn what was normally a noble pursuit into something dark.”

It doesn’t exactly describe the book. “Icepick Surgeon” is a jumbled tale of misconduct and evil, loosely grouped under a high concept.

Some of the people Kean wrote about aren’t really scientists or doing bad things in the name of science. Take his anecdote about Cleopatra he used to open the book: The historical monarch experimented on supposedly doomed servants, forcibly impregnated them, and then dissected their wombs in early pregnancy to determine if he could predict their gender. child. This is a scary story. But is this true? Probably not. Kean admits that “this horror has historically only been mentioned in the Talmud, and the accounts are apparently dubious.” And even if we accept this weak source, it is likely that Cleopatra’s dedication to science would not have compelled her to commit such gruesome acts. Here’s a counter argument: Bored despots do unspeakable things.

If you can forgive Kean’s over-broad editing principle (and hey, the books don’t sell themselves), you’ll find a series of gripping stories about bad science, corrupt rivalries, and deceit with real skulls. Kean is a gifted storyteller. When he wrote about the quirks of grave robbers feeding medical schools with fresh cadavers, his detailed description of the techniques and tricks of the “sack-’em-up guys” spooked me and embarrassed me to say: he’s laughing.

Readers may already know many of the stories Kean shared, including the Nazi experiments that led to the drafting of the Nuremberg Law and the notorious Tuskegee study that left Black men untreated for syphilis for decades. But it also presents less familiar stories and characters, such as the American doctor who infects his subjects with venereal diseases in Guatemala, or the Massachusetts forensic expert whose mock tests led to countless wrongful convictions.

You’re even less likely to be familiar with the story of 18th-century scientist Henry Smeathman, who traveled to Sierra Leone to observe insects and send plant and animal samples to his supporters. He was gradually drawn into the slave trade. Kean attributes his story to the stigma of slavery in the work of many early scholars. Probably “in almost every natural history museum in any major European city” there are examples of slavery.

Kean tells the sad story of temporary surgeries like the lobotomy spree. Like the sex reassignment surgeries that led to David Reimer’s tragic suicide, being raised as a girl after a failed circumcision in infancy, and causing doctors to surgically reassign her gender.

The book ends with a very important point. Kean quotes Albert Einstein: “Most people say it’s intelligence that makes a great scientist. They’re wrong: it’s character.” Kean adds: “Science without character is the end of it, and unethical scientists often produce bad science.”

In an age where pseudoscience is undermining truth in everything from virology to climate change, this is a lesson for all of us.

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