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What Are Science’s Ugliest Experiments?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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When I teach history of science at Stevens Institute of Technology, I devote plenty of time to science’s glories, the kinds of achievements that my buddy George Johnson wrote about in The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008). George helps us appreciate what Galileo did with inclined planes, Newton with prisms, Pavlov with dogs, Galvani with frogs, Millikan with oil drops, Faraday with a magnet and coil of wire. (When George demonstrated Faraday’s experiment on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert found the experiment so shocking that he blurted out, “Mother——!”) But I tell my students about science’s missteps, too, to remind them that scientists can be as flawed as the rest of us mortals. In that negative spirit, here are five experiments that I consider to be especially hideous, horrible, immoral—in short, ugly.

Walter Freeman and Transorbital Lobotomies

In 1949, the Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz won a Nobel Prize for inventing the lobotomy, a treatment for mental illness that called for inserting a sharp instrument into holes drilled through the skull and destroying tissue in the frontal lobes. By then, physician Walter Freeman Jr., (father of neuroscientist Walter Freeman III, a leading consciousness researcher) had already begun carrying out lobotomies in the United States. In 1941 Freeman lobotomized the unruly, 23-year-old sister of John F. Kennedy; Rosemary Kennedy was so severely disabled after her lobotomy that she required care for the rest of her life. Freeman later invented the transorbital lobotomy, which involved slipping an ice pick past the eyeball, thrusting it through the rear of the eye socket and swishing it back and forth in the brain. In the 1950s, Freeman drove across the U.S. and Canada in a station wagon, which he called the “Lobotomobile,” performing as many as 25 transorbital lobotomies a day on patients at mental hospitals—often after knocking them out with electroshock therapy. Three patients at an Iowa hospital died on the same day after he operated on them, according to “The Lobotomist,” a 2009 documentary. Freeman nonetheless kept practicing lobotomies—as many as 5,000 in all–until 1967, when (as I have reported elsewhere) one of his patients died of a cerebral hemorrhage. In 1949 The New York Times hailed Moniz and other lobotomists for helping us “to look with less awe at the brain. It is just a big organ…no more sacred than the liver.” Until his death in 1972, Freeman insisted that lobotomies had helped most of his patients. But as the medical historian Edward Shorter has noted: “Freeman’s definition of success is that the patients are no longer agitated. That doesn’t mean that you’re cured, that means they could be discharged from the asylum, but they were incapable of carrying on normal social life. They were usually demobilized and lacking in energy. And they were that on a permanent basis.

The Biggest U.S. H-Bomb Test Ever

On March 1, 1954, in a test code-named “Castle Bravo,” the U.S. detonated a thermonuclear bomb on Bikini Atoll, one of the Marshall Islands, in the Pacific Ocean. Physicists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the bomb was designed, estimated that it would have a yield equivalent to 5 million tons, or megatons, of conventional high explosives. The yield turned out to be 15 megatons, 1,000 times more than the fission bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The explosion gouged a crater more than a mile wide out of Bikini, ballooned into a fireball more than four miles across and spewed radioactive debris so high into the atmosphere that it ended up spanning the globe. Inhabitants of other Marshall Islands, 100 miles or more from Bikini, suffered from radiation poisoning, as did 23 men on a Japanese fishing boat, the “Lucky Dragon,” 80 miles from ground zero. One man on the Lucky Dragon died months after returning to port. Before Bravo, U.S. officials apparently worried that prevailing winds might carry fallout over inhabited areas but decided to proceed with the test. Bravo remains the biggest U.S. nuclear explosion, but its yield was less than a third that of the Tsar Bomba, detonated by the Soviet Union in 1961. Public concerns over these enormous explosions led to a ban on atmospheric testing in 1963, but the arms race continued. Today, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, eight nations possess a total of more than 20,000 nuclear weapons.

U.S. Syphilis Tests in Guatemala

From 1946 to 1948, American physicians funded by the National Institutes of Health deliberately infected 1,300 Guatemalan mental patients, prisoners, prostitutes and soldiers with syphilis and other venereal diseases. According to this 2011 BBC report, researchers infected subjects by supplying them with syphilitic prostitutes, by cutting their skin and rubbing bacteria into the wounds or by injecting the bacteria directly into the spine. The researchers gave some infected subjects penicillin to test the antibiotic’s efficacy but many others were left untreated. A leader of the research was John Cutler, who later participated in the infamous Tuskegee experiments, in which American doctors withheld antibiotics from black men infected with syphilis to study the untreated course of the disease. The Guatemala research took place while U.S. lawyers in Nuremberg were trying Nazi physicians for carrying out unethical experiments. In 2010 U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius apologized to Guatemala for the syphilis experiments and called them “clearly unethical.” You think?

Can a Brain Implant Make a Gay Man Straight?

The psychiatrist Robert Health, who headed the department of psychiatry and neurology at Tulane University from 1949 to 1980, did pioneering research on the potential of electrical stimulation of the brain to treat schizophrenia and other disorders. (I described the work of Heath and other brain-implant researchers in “The Forgotten Era of Brain Chips,” Scientific American, October 2005). In a paper published in 1972 in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, Heath described an experiment on a 24-year-old male homosexual with a history of epilepsy, depression, and drug abuse. The man, whom Heath called patient B-19, was facing charges for marijuana possession when he agreed to serve as Heath’s subject. Heath drilled a hole in B-19′s skull and inserted an electrode in the septal region of his brain, which is associated with pleasure. B-19 could stimulate himself by pressing a button on a hand-help device. B-19, who according to Heath had never had heterosexual intercourse and found it “repugnant,” stimulated himself to the point of orgasm while watching a heterosexual porn film and, later, having intercourse with a 21-year-old female prostitute supplied by Heath. The patient “achieved successful penetration, which culminated in a highly satisfactory orgiastic response, despite the milieu and the encumbrances of the lead wires to the electrodes,” Heath wrote. One wonders what an institutional review board would say about Heath’s research today.

Dosing Kids with Psychiatric Meds

Are the days of ugly research over? If only. In the past two decades, American psychiatrists have been carrying out what is in effect an enormous clinical trial involving millions of children. Physicians are medicating children with stimulants such as Ritalin, antidepressants such as Prozac, anti-anxiety drugs such as Xanax, bipolar drugs such as lithium and antipsychotics such as Risperdal. “It’s really to some extent an experiment, trying medications in these children of this age,” child psychiatrist Patrick Bacon told producers of the 2008 PBS documentary “The Medicated Child.” “It’s a gamble. And I tell parents there’s no way to know what’s going to work.” As of 2009, more than 500,000 American adolescents and children, including toddlers younger than two, were taking antipsychotics, which “may pose grave risks to development of both their fast-growing brains and their bodies,” according to The New York Times. In Anatomy of an Epidemic (Crown, 2010), which I have written about previously, journalist Robert Whitaker presents evidence that psychiatric drugs may be hurting more children than they help. Since 1987, he reports, while prescriptions for children have soared, the number of patients under 18 receiving federal disability payments for mental illness has multiplied by a factor of 35. By this measure, the experiment does not seem to be working.

Please share your nominations for the “ugliest experiments,” in the comments section below.

Photo credits:
Walter Freeman Jr. (center) performing transorbital lobotomy in 1949: Bettman/CORBIS.
Castle Bravo fireball: Wikimedia Commons.
Syphilis blisters: Wikimedia Commons.
Robert Heath with patient: Tulane University.
Prozac: Wikimedia Commons.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. rvcanuck 5:03 pm 05/14/2012

    That would depend on how you define “ugly”. There have been all sorts of horrendous medical experiments and/or medical treatments that seem unbelievable today. These can include:
    Curing hysteria in women patients by removing their ovaries.

    Roberts Bartholow’s experiment on a comatose Mary Rafferty.

    Or the starvation study using conscientious objectors during WWII.

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  2. 2. dewaal 6:01 pm 05/14/2012

    I would nominate the study of “learned helplessness” on dogs by Seligman and others. Not something anyone would approve today.

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  3. 3. jswilkins 9:05 pm 05/14/2012

    The Soviet experiments on severed dog heads and head transplants comes to mind. Also the USAF experiments on chimps and radiation.

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  4. 4. Gaythia 10:03 pm 05/14/2012

    Not in the same league as Bikini Atoll but still displaying serious callousness towards effect on neighboring humans: The Green Run at Hanford in 1949:

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  5. 5. Heteromeles 10:09 pm 05/14/2012

    If you’re in a really negative mood, or current experiment in global industrial nitrogen fixation might be a contender. Problem is, there’s no control or replication for what this experiment has done to society (through massive population increase), the biosphere (through the massive amount of fixed nitrogen causing dead spots, the problems with industrial agriculture, etc), and warfare (most guns and explosives depend on fixed nitrogen to work).

    In the debate over climate change and potential geoengineering solutions, we really should look at what drove invention of the Haber-Bosch process (basically, concern about global famine) and its consequences (famine’s still with us, but we have more weapons and more people).

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  6. 6. doug123sa 11:07 pm 05/14/2012

    The Milgram experiment would certainly be hard to get approved today. Its conclusions were compelling, but its methods sadistic.

    Re psych drugs in children, I take exception to your hasty generalization “psychiatric drugs may be hurting more children than they help.” Disturbing yes, but you gloss over the ones who *are* being helped, and as the (bipolar) father of one of them I was both reluctant to turn to medicine and very respectful of the significant if not decisive difference it has made for him. Using a bland, averaging statistic to describe an entire group is simply stereotyping. Hastily dismissing those who do benefit as folks suckered by placebo or reliant on crutches hurts real children, perhaps permanently.

    Drugs can be misused in any age group. The problem with children is the relative lack of study, and that should draw our attention to the broken system of pharmaceutical approval and regulation. It is also true that disorders such as ADD are simultaneously over- and underdiagnosed. None of this negates the benefit to the subset who do benefit. We’re not using the drugs as a band-aid for emotional maladjustment, we’re getting my son into the zone where he can be himself—honor roll for the first time last term, which is HIS achievement and not the pill’s.

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  7. 7. Dave X 11:12 pm 05/14/2012

    These aren’t as ugly or wicked, but do expose some pretty ugly wickedness:

    Stanford prison experiment: and

    Milgram’s compliance experiment:

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  8. 8. Danny Haszard 7:14 am 05/15/2012

    In the news now,the Feds and the States are prosecuting the profit driven drug companies left and right for violations that have directly caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of disabilities.My personal experience was with Eli Lilly Zyprexa-Daniel Haszard
    FMI Google-Haszard Zyprexa

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  9. 9. comfort 10:14 am 05/15/2012

    Tuskegee certainly belongs on the list of ugly experiments. See Susan Reverby’s marvelous Examining Tuskegee, James Jones’s classic Bad Blood, and Harriet Washington’s more polemical Medical Apartheid.

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  10. 10. TinaF 12:48 pm 05/15/2012

    The Stanford Prison Experiment. It went so horridly wrong and had to be stopped after 2 or 3 days. Even the PI got wrapped up into it.

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  11. 11. chernavsky 1:11 pm 05/15/2012

    René Descartes had a theory that animals are not conscious. He acknowledged that they howl if you hit them, but they are not actually feeling any pain — they are simply acting like a squeaky clock mechanism.

    Consequently, Descartes didn’t see anything wrong with tying-down dogs (and other animals) in a spread-eagle position — and then cutting them up, while they were still alive.

    “There is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it.” — Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC)

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  12. 12. chernavsky 1:17 pm 05/15/2012

    doug123sa — with regard to psychiatric drugs, you may be interested in an excellent book called, “Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America”, by Robert Whitaker. (John Horgan has blogged about this book.) Whitaker argues that psychiatric drugs may be responsible for an epidemic of mental illness that has spread over the past fifty years or so. Not sure if this commenting system allows links, but here’s a link to the book’s Amazon page:

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  13. 13. jnredwine 2:58 pm 05/15/2012

    Certainly, the “Monster Study” performed by the University of Iowa in 1939 on 22 orphans in Davenport deserves to be listed as one of science’s ugliest experiments. The PI induced stuttering in normal children, many of whom retained speech problems and psychological difficulties for the rest of their lives.

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  14. 14. jgrosay 6:09 pm 05/15/2012

    A team of researchers kept a monkey brain totally isolated from the animal’s body, naked on the air, and with the brain’s life maintained by an extracorporeal circulation and oxigenation system. They managed to show that the isolated brain had some kind of a response to loud noises such as a rattle. A sci-fi tale spoke about a person that commited a crime being sentenced to having his/her brain extracted, and the brain put in command of an accountability machine for 200 years. The Guatemala and Tuskagee experiments had an identical precedent in the XIXth Century’s Prussia: Dr. Neisser deliberately inoculated a number of persons with syphilis to test a vaccine he had invented, this triggering the first in the world laws regulating experimentation in human beings. The opera Wozzek is based in experiments in a human subject case history, but I don’t know if it was an actual fact. A teacher of medical psychology told us about a woman who had Lobotomy: her child fell out from the window to the street several floors below. She slowly walked down the stairs, looked at the child realizing its death, and with no affective impact at all, came back to home. The character by Jack Nicholson in “One flew over the Cuckoo’s nest” is apparently sent to lobotomy, but this character seems not being an schyzophrenic, the subset of patients lobotomy was more frequently used in, but just a psychopatic personality. What about the proposed and never conducted detonation of a high power nuclear bomb in the deepest of the deeper oceanic abyss?

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  15. 15. dunce 12:52 am 05/16/2012

    The drugs may contribute to the increase by the factor of 35 but government policy is the major factor. Many have deliberately sought a diagnosis of mental problems to qualify for what are commonly called crazy checks from the govt..

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  16. 16. jgrosay 5:01 am 05/16/2012

    Currently, there are people in the mental healthcare field that are conducting -on those who inadvertently trust an approach them- something analog to lobotomy and/or female genital ablation, but by psychotherapy means. You better get rid of them all, and let them analyze themselves one another. Salut +

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  17. 17. Truthseeker 5:39 am 05/16/2012

    I worked at the San Antonio State Hospital in the early 70s. We had a severely psychotic patient on our ward who at that time was getting 900 milligrams of thorazone 3 times daily plus 700 mg at bedtime. Total thorazine dose in 24 hours was 3.5 GRAMS of a medication that 25 mg would put well into tomorrow or the next day. She also was taking enough phenobarbitol (for seizures) to put a room full of people fast to sleep. The seizures were a side effect of a lobotomy done sometime during the heyday of that barbaric practice. The really scary thing was that, despite the lobotomy, she still needed 3.5 grams of thorazine daily and she STILL got agitated at times. She jumped me, once. Fortunately a couple of other patients pulled her off me. Had to take a couple of days off to decompress after that one!

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  18. 18. Truthseeker 5:48 am 05/16/2012

    I also would like to note that I have learned that they are back to doing electro-convulsive therapy again. I had to assist with such procedures often. I had double majored in college and psychology was one of my majors. After seeing my first procedure I was sickened. Never changed my mind. My sister-in-law had a period of depression before she and my brother met. She was never the brightest bulb on the tree (her mother is my reference point since folks say she takes after her mother) but post ECT she is a real “space cadet”. Could give Edith Bunker “dingbat” lessons. She’s basically a sweet soul but she is really out there. Did/do they really believe they help patients with such barbarisms? The Greeks used quiet, pleasant surroundings and soothing music while we use thorazine, ECT and lobotomies but do we do any better at making them better than the Greeks did over two millenia ago?

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  19. 19. Heidi Lindborg 5:46 pm 05/20/2012

    Low Fat Diets.
    Low fat diets cause hypoglycemia in people prone to obesity. People who produce too much insulin will become fatter and hungrier if they are put on a low fat diet. The recommended diet for weight loss actually causes obesity and food cravings in the exact people who are most likely to gain weight in the first place.

    Link to this
  20. 20. drjuluka 12:30 am 05/21/2012

    In three words, anything involving curare, electricity, or radioactivity.

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  21. 21. StephenBlack 9:08 pm 05/25/2012

    The examples cited by Horgan do not readily fit the conventional idea of an experiment, a study undertaken to generate new information or test a hypothesis. I would argue in particular against giving this designation to Freeman’s practice of transorbital lobotomy, and also to H-bomb testing, and dosing children with psychiatric medications. But one study which truly deserves the name of “ugly experiment” was carried out by the eminent child psychologist Wayne Dennis, who reported it in meticulous detail in the respected journal Genetic Psychology Monographs in 1941. The report describes how he and his wife “borrowed” a pair of one-month-old fraternal twins, Del and Rey, and brought them up under conditions of
    severe social deprivation for 14 months in order to test his theory of child development. During this period the babies were reared in a bare room by the experimenters who ensured for the most part that no one talked to them, smiled at them, played with them, or cuddled them. More detail is available in Nicholas Tucker’s 1994 essay here:

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