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What Are Science's Ugliest Experiments?

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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.

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

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