A staple trope of popular culture, the mad scientist is epitomized by a white robe wearing, frazzle haired harbinger of technology misused and calculations gone awry. But the reality is all too true, and scientists mad or otherwise ill-informed or ill-intentioned have certainly caused chaos in the annals of research. In this account, we look at 10 must-know mad scientists who took their research a little too far, including the Russian serial dog head transplanter, a Spanish researcher who remote controlled a live bull, and the German doctor who probed his own heart.
10. Trofim Lysenko
We may all know about the so-called “Mad Monk of Russia” Rasputin and his exploits, but a mad scientist who touted bizarre theories of agro-science and applied botany led to strange experiments and research implementations on the nation’s food supply. Born in Ukraine in and educated at the Kiev Agricultural Institute, Soviet agricultural pseudoscientist Trofim Lysenko held a strong position as a trusted agricultural advisor to the brutal dictator Joseph Stalin despite the outrageously unscientific founding principles of his work. Pioneering a technique he called “jarovization,” subsequently renamed as “vernalization,” Lysenko declared that exposing plants to harsh conditions could not only “train” them to withstand a Russian winter and that the adaptations would be passed on to the next generation.
Expert analysts later described such claims as the botanical equivalent to docking the tail of a dog and expecting tailless puppies to be born. While individual plants could become hardier through acclimatization, the claims that crops would inherit the traits and curb famine of course never came to fruition. Lysenko’s beliefs that such traits could be inherited flew in the face of everything scientific and were sharply countered by scientific reality when crops failed to respond. In the ill-founded mix of science and politics, Lysenko was the darling of Joseph Stalin for his pursuit of “socialist genetics” and crusade against believe in Mendelian genetics, a movement which was termed “Lysenkoism.” Even worse, biologists who supported traditional biological truth were censored, supressed and in numerous cases executed under the Stalin regime in what amount to a brutal pogrom against legitimate biologists at the hands of lethally enforced pseudoscience.
9. William Buckland
The ultimate eccentric, William Buckland presents a textbook case of the mad scientist. Born in Devonshire, England in 1784, Buckland became the inaugural student of geology at Oxford in 1801 following his receipt of a scholarship. But it was in the world of biology that his greatest and most bizarre ambition resided. This British scientist had a very unusual and obsessive way of expressing his dedication to life sciences: his plan was to attempt to sample (by eating) every type of animal on Earth.
The mad scientist held a passion for learning and teaching in odd ways, becoming a most non-sequitur lecturer who yelled while brandishing a hyena skull in close proximity to students’ faces. As a member of the dubious Society for the Acclimatization of Animals, which sought to promote colonial efforts to populate Britain with beasts and birds from distant lands, Buckland did what might be normal for a member of such a society in bringing a laundry list of alien biodiversity to British shores and keeping reptiles, birds of prey, primates, and a hyena under his personal care. Curious, unafraid, and with bizarre taste, Buckland tasted as many animals as he could in his lifetime, ranging from the disgusting and potentially pathogen riddled, such as a bluebottle fly, to the bizarre, including moles and sea slugs, and the downright cruel, reportedly eating puppy flesh.
He became fond of mouse flesh on toast, trying it on repeated occasions. While focusing on tasting animals, it is rumored that Buckland got hold of the 140-year-old preserved heart of King Louis XIV of France and tasted the walls of an Italian cathedral before stating that the so-called blood of martyrs onsite was actually bat urine. Even worse, Buckland taught his son the “joys” of zoological sampling, and Buckland junior indeed went on to follow in his father’s footsteps… or, shall we say, bite marks.
8. Werner Theodor Otto Forssmann
An insanely bold medical scientist from Germany, Berlin-born Werner Forssmann (August 29, 1904-June 1, 1979) is probably the only person who can truly be said to have put their whole heart into their work… literally. Or rather, he put his work into his heart when he pioneered heart catheterization, placing a catheter that extended just over 25 inches through his antecubital vein. Being smooth and slender, the device was able to be pushed along the inside of the vein once the initial incision had been made. Performing such a pioneering procedure on his own body was clearly a high risk choice given the awkwardness of self-operation and chance of suffering a medical emergency in the process, and being unable to get help.
Nonetheless, Forssmann proceeded and then went to the X-ray department, where he obtained a picture of the catheter in his own heart, located within the right auricle. While dangerous, the result of his work was effective and led to great recognition. His efforts were interrupted by World War II when he became a prisoner of war while serving as a Surgeon-Major, held in captivity until 1945. Having survived both his extreme self-experiment and WWII, Dr. Forssmann obtained the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1956. He was previously awarded the Leibniz Medal of the German Academy of Sciences in 1954 and received honorary Professorship at the National University of Cordoba, Argentina in 1961.
7. Vladimir Demikhov
It might seem that there is a correlation between madness on the part of scientists and unfettered accomplishments in certain areas. A researcher of dubious ethics and bizarre intent, Vladimir Demikhov was born in 1916 in Russia, nevertheless becoming known as a paradigm-changing heart transplant pioneer as well as a truly obsessive “mad” scientist who made short-lived two-headed dogs. Demikhov invented the first cardiac assist device at age 21 in the year 1937, going on to complete the first coronary bypass, auxiliary heart transplant and heart and lung transplant. Yet, his reputation for live-saving innovation in medicine was sullied by bizarre experiments centering on transplanting dog’s heads onto other dogs, creating two headed dogs.
Obsessive about this specific experiment, Demikhov did this procedure a shocking 20 times. While his work was deemed unethical by a Soviet Ministry of Health review committee, who ordered him to cease the head transplants, he continued on with his brutal experiments. Miraculously and grotesquely, the doubled-headed canines lived for some time, but all died within less than one month following the transplants. While some people are known for being cruel to humans but kind to animals, the reverse is true in the case of Demikhov, who not only contributed to innovation that would save human lives through great innovation, but protected those who would otherwise be condemned to execution at great personal risk. In the course of WWII, he told superiors that self-inflicted wounds were legitimate battle injuries, sparing Soviet soldiers the death penalty for desertion.
6. Jose Delgado
Possibly the most Spanish way to become known as a mad scientist would be to conduct mind control experiments on a fighting bull. Spanish “mad scientist” Jose Delgado (August 8, 1915-September 15, 2011) did exactly that in 1963 when he carried out bizarre experiments including one involving the animal central in the controversial tradition of Spanish bullfighting. A graduate of the University of Madrid, Delgado worked at Yale University with electrode implants that were intended to modify animal behavior through radio frequencies. Implanting the device in a bull, he was able to halt a charge by the angry beast with his device. Not limited to experiments with primates and the “remote controlled bull,” Delgado sought to develop mind control methods that would work on human subjects.
Being less limited by ethical restrictions in Spain compared to the United States, Delgado’s work progressed to include a broad range of experiments, ranging from electrical implants and stimulation to outright mind control. By implanting “brain chips” Delgado was able to trigger, manipulate, direct, and stop a variety of human and animal behaviors. Delgado pursued work on mind control methods as a way to reduce aggression and saw ways to fight tyranny through limitation of conflict. In one case, a female monkey in a compound of his research subjects learned to press a lever, delivering aggression-supressing shocks to a monkey known as a bully. While much of Delgado’s work matches or surpasses modern work, the degree to which much of it was published only in Spanish has limited the use and understanding of his work in the scientific community.
5. Stubbins Ffirth
While a mad scientist who attempts to test and prove the efficacy of cures on themselves is understandable, one researcher took being a guinea pig to a whole new level of crazy. Stubbins Ffirth (1784-1820) was an American doctor in training at the University of Pennsylvania with a dedication to investigating Yellow Fever, which had killed around 10 percent of Philadelphia’s population. Observing a wintertime reduction in Yellow Fever deaths, Ffirth developed a theory that Yellow Fever was not a disease which could be caught through infection, but was an affliction stemming from heat and stress.
Not content with uncertainty and unwilling to wait, he decided to test his beloved hypothesis that Yellow Fever could not be caught by infection. And to do so, he went to shockingly extreme lengths to show that he could not be infected by exposure to Yellow Fever, firmly establishing his work as mad and himself as a crazy scientist. After a series of animal experiments, it was time to expose himself to Yellow Fever. Firstly, he cut himself on the arms and dribbled contaminated vomit from Yellow Fever patients onto the wounds. He placed vomit in his eyes, cooked the vomit and ate it as a pill. After failing to get sick, Ffirth tried other contaminated bodily byproducts and still did not fall ill. Eventually, further research showed that Yellow Fever is contagious; it just requires direct blood transmission through a mosquito bite to be passed on. With that fact being true, Ffirth did not die of Yellow Fever despite the rigors of his research.
4. Robert G. Heath
Pleasure and pain may be closely related, and the desire to measure both factors in human experience has led to some disturbing and bizarre experiments in this tempting area of investigation for the mad scientist. American psychiatrist Robert G. Heath was a blatantly unethical “mad scientist” who engaged in experiments that controlled peoples’ experience of pleasure and pain through receptor stimulation by electrode. His qualifications were impressive, having degrees in psychology and neurology and being the founder of the Tulane University department of psychiatry and neurology at New Orleans.
Seeking to study mental function, Dr. Heath implanted electrodes into subjects’ brains, sometimes leaving them in for months at a time. His most disturbing and ill-founded human experiments included giving a woman a 30-minute orgasm through electrical stimulation and attempting in 1970 to change the orientation of a gay man who had been arrested for marijuana possession through exposure to a female prostitute. In this especially notorious work that undoubtedly contributed to his being seen as a “Strangelovian” person, Dr. Heath combined pleasure center-triggering through electrode implants with arranged sexual activity with a “lady of the evening” who was hired for the experiment and paid $50 for her part in the “research.” Given the nature of his activities and receipt of US government funding, Dr. Heath has been suspected of having been involved in the illegal CIA MK-ULTRA research program on mind control.
3. Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov
We all know the tired movie cliché of the ape-man, but one out-on-a-limb researcher from the Soviet Union was willing to go to great lengths to try and make the concept a reality. Soviet mad scientist Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov was a fan of conservation, captive breeding, and zoology, pursuing a wide range of activities relating to biological diversity investigation. He was also an unethical and highly determined researcher who held the express goal of crossing a human being with a Chimpanzee. Unbounded by ethical considerations, Ivanov was originally willing to try to inseminate an unknowing human female with Chimpanzee sperm.
However, Ivanov realized that he would need consenting volunteers. He sought government backing for work to create the hybrid. Once he actually got to work on trying to make the hybrid, Ivanov began by first trying to inseminate female chimpanzees with human sperm in the hopes of getting them pregnant with the hybrid baby. When these attempts did not pan out, he then attempted to organize experiments to do the reverse, impregnating human women with Chimpanzee semen. However, before he could arrange participants and plan the project, the obsessed researcher was arrested and exiled to what has now become Kazakhstan. Apart from Ivanov’s ill-fated and unethical human hybridization efforts, he succeeded in creating other animal hybrids. These inter-special creations included a horse-zebra cross, mixed species rodent offspring, and a bison-cow cross.
2. Harry Harlow
Skirting the ethical bounds of science in a bid to advance research is something that a researcher might do secretively. But one mad scientist who ruined the lives of many monkeys through questionable and cruel research was oddly cold and unabashed in his description of his work. American psychologist Harry Harlow was known for bizarre experiments on monkeys that combined less than scientific research questions with brutal and ethically fraught methods of investigation. A researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Harlow placed juvenile monkeys in isolation chambers for 1-to-2 years at a time away from their mothers. Harlow compared the psychology and behavior of those raised with a real mother with those having only a cloth doll.
Widely criticized for his brutal experiments, he was also criticized for the theoretical basis of his work in seeking to study the importance of “love” in primate development due to the unscientific nature of the term “love.” Bold in his cruel terminology, his way of talking had a sadistic ring to it. After all, he was known to openly refer to his device for artificial primate insemination as a “rape rack” and the isolation chamber in which baby monkeys were placed as the “Pit of Despair,” terms which did not seem to bother him. Not surprisingly, Harlow’s work caused significant psychological and physical distress, leading monkeys to engage in self-mutilating behaviors even after removal from the “pit.”
1. Giovanni Aldini
Many Italian superstitions involve fears of the dead coming back to Earth and have led to the creation of elaborate rituals to prevent such occurrences. And those intent on preventing the return of the dead or otherwise undead would not have been too happy to meet a man who appeared to do just that, albeit by “scientific” means. Italian mad scientist Giovanni Aldini was a notorious yet officially awarded and decorated Bologna-born physicist known for his bizarre and gruesome electrical experiments on corpses. Working not only with dead animals but human remains in ghastly tests with an electrical probe, Aldini “activated” corpses and caused them to appear to return to life, being animated in different parts depending on where shocks were applied.
The experiments where he electrified human bodies were often carried out in public view, being something of a showman. Among his exploits were his public 1803 tests on the body of an Englishman, who had been executed on charges of murder, at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Although his work was gruesome, there were many serious efforts inherent in his work. He strongly believed in the benefits of electrical shock therapy, from which he reported many improvements in patient condition. He was made a Knight of the Iron Crown by the Austrian Emperor for his pioneering research efforts and achievements. In the modern era, the legacy from his efforts is represented by practices and achievements in the form of deep brain stimulation, used to address certain motor function and behavior-based disorders.