Scientific Experiments That Went Terribly Wrong


Science encompasses a vast range of study fields. With scientific investigation comes responsibility. When ethics or caution are thrown to the wind, or the experiment simply doesn’t work out, disaster and failure can be dramatic. In this account, we discover 10 experiments with some pretty unsatisfactory social outcomes.

10. Willowbrook State School Hepatitis Tests

At Willowbrook State School, run by the state of New York as a place for children with mental handicaps, outbreaks of hepatitis occurred naturally and also as a result of unethical experimentation. At this Staten Island school, Dr. Saul Krugman conducted some very disturbing experiments where he intentionally infected children with mental disabilities with hepatitis and then monitored the progress of the infection for scientific research purposes.

The research began in 1956 and went on for 14 years. Worse yet, parents were often informed that their children could be admitted provided they consented to hepatitis experiments being done on the children as an alternative to paying high entrance fees. The researchers justified the work by saying that injections intended to fight off hepatitis would be given following purposeful infection, and then claimed that existing infections meant that inducing hepatitis infection should not be viewed too harshly. Some twisted reasoning indeed! A variety of scholarly writers weighed in and offered opinions that included reasons the work should be condemned or defended in a piece titled “The Willowbrook Letters: Criticisms and Defense.”

9. The Ebola Guinea Pig

Ebola might be one of the scariest viruses on Earth, but it has been studied in experiments where one might conclude sufficient caution was lacking. A Russian researcher died when Ebola experimentation led not to study results but death from exposure. While investigating the biology of Ebola virus at the Vector laboratory at Novosibirsk in Siberia, a female researcher poked herself with an Ebola laden needle. The accident at this ultra-secure biological facility involved an Ebola source that might seem surprising: an infected guinea pig being used in the virology study rather than a direct human source.

There are various sub-types of Ebola, but all are dangerous to varying degrees. Infectious and deadly, Ebola will kill between 50 and 90 percent of those infected. Worse, a cure is not yet available for the virus once it is acquired, just management of symptoms. In this accident, the researcher was dead within 14 days of exposure. Unfortunately, Vector officials failed to report the accident right away to the World Health Organization, which is thought to have further reduced the victim’s chances of living.

8. The Madness of Dr. Leo Stanley

Dr. Leo Stanley was one mad scientist whose experiments were founded on dubious or lacking science, and more problematic ethical grounds. Of course, his bizarre experiments ended in harm and often chaos. As the Chief Surgeon of California’s San Quentin Prison, the doctor experimented on the testicles of prisoners with a variety of strange theories to back up his experiments. The things he did are among the most gruesome and bizarre experiments in American history. Take harvesting the testicles from prisoners after their execution and then placing them into the bodies of living prisoners to study male “rejuvenation” while also attempting to gain insight on the “biology of crime” and explore potential means of biological crime control.

It was not enough for this scientist to trade testicles between the living and the dead. He also went full interspecial and began implants of goat, ram and boar testicles into prisoners. Eugenics experiments and forced sterilizations were also among his work. Hundreds of prisoners were subjected to Dr. Stanley’s bizarre research and the harmful results of such non-standard invasions of the human body.

7. The Washington & Oregon Prison Radiation Scandal

When it comes to experiments that end badly, the strange theme of prisoners and terrible, inhumane testicle tests keeps coming up. Is a dishonest and dangerous offer of getting radiated the way to pay for offenses and get out of jail early? From 1963 to 1973, prisoners numbering in the dozens held in Washington and Oregon prison were subjected to doses of radiation to test its effects on — you guessed it — human testes.

With enticement from cash “bribes” and parole hints, 130 inmates let the University of Washington test radiation on them at the behest of the U.S. government. Doses were at 400 rads of radiation, equal to a shocking 2,400 chest x-rays, given in intervals of 10 minutes. The prisoners were not told just how harmful the experimentation was, and received financial settlements through a class-action lawsuit. Dr. Carl Heller, the “mad scientist” behind these brutal human radiation experiments, had received $1.2 million in grant money over 10 years contributing to his cruel work. The inmates tested were given vasectomies, in case the radiation damaged their DNA enough to cause them to father children with genetic abnormalities.

6. The Russian Missile Deaths

Long a key Russian center of nuclear weapons research, the town of Sarov, located 250 miles east of Moscow, was the site of multiple researcher fatalities in the summer of 2019. From 1946 to the present day, Sarov has seen an extraordinary variety of nuclear research works take place within its bounds. The incident is shrouded in secrecy, but we do know that five Russian nuclear weapons workers met their demise in the summer of 2019 and were recognized in a well-attended state memorial service after a nuclear project on which they worked went very wrong. The accident not only killed the five workers, but exposed nearby settled areas to doses of radiation.

Russian sources have described the work being undertaken as tests intended to develop a small reactor as a power source for weapons systems. The deaths were attributed to an error which would be “studied” to prevent future accidents of the type. American and independent Russian speculation has included views that the war machine under testing could have been a nuclear powered cruise missile. Whatever it was, the explosion was powerful enough to hurl some of the victims into the waters of Dvinsky Bay, in which a platform had been set up as the site for the testing.

5. African Clawed Frog Pregnancy Tests

Researchers historically arrived on a way to detect human pregnancy by injecting African clawed frogs with urine. If they laid eggs, the patient was pregnant. This method was in vogue in the 1940s and 1950s. But when better methods were developed, many of the frogs, originally hailing from sub-Saharan Africa, were released from labs, leading to some seriously problematic invasive species situations as well as pathogen transmission.

Completely aquatic, the strange amphibian species not only acts as a predator but also a serious disease vector, harming numerous native amphibians thanks to the chytrid fungus they carry. African clawed frogs are now distributed across a number of American states, with escapees’ descendants found in perhaps surprisingly cold places like the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Germany. African clawed frogs are banned in a range of American states and known to eat or compete with a shocking array of native species, ranging from amphibians to fish. The chytrid fungus, deadly to many native amphibians and carried by the frogs, is a tragic legacy of the pregnancy tests for which the frogs are used, decimating native amphibian populations in part as a result of clawed frog releases. The problem is made worse by the frog’s apparent immunity, making them especially dangerous vectors.

4. Cornelius the Crazed Cancer Researcher

Harvard-educated pathologist Dr. Cornelius Rhoads was one of the most highly regarded cancer researchers of the 20th century before he fell into disgrace. The highest award given out to scientists by the American Association for Cancer Research, the Cornelius Rhoads Award was named after this researcher before he was accused by a Puerto Rico doctor of deliberately infecting patients in Puerto Rico with cancer cells.

Dr. Rhoads expressed reprehensible views in a handwritten letter in which he apparently said the people of Puerto Rico “are beyond doubt the dirtiest, laziest, most degenerate and thievish race of men ever inhabiting this sphere … What the island needs is not public health work, but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population.” As a result of the experiments, a number of Puerto Ricans were killed by this doctor once honored for his work, which in fact came at the expense of innocent victims and counts as an ill-gotten gain of some especially horrific, racially motivated unethical research. As a result, the medal honoring Rhoades was renamed in 2003 and the honor stripped from his name.

3. Project Stormfury

The weather can be fickle, but blaming the weatherperson is not always the answer. Scientists messing with the weather in the background might have a greater responsibility for unexpected weather events. Project Stormfury was a United States based test of what were supposed to be storm curbing ice crystals that actually failed to effectively stop hurricanes which went on to cause massive losses of lives.

Between 1962 and 1983, US government aircraft loaded with silver iodide release equipment were flown right into hurricanes where the iodide was dumped. This was intended to cause supercooled water freezing within the hurricane, which was expected to break it up, disrupting its meteorological structure. Unfortunately, the heroic measures were largely wasted as it was found in the years to come that supercooled water is present in insufficient quantities within a hurricane for all of this anticipated storm disruption to ever work.

2. Chemical Weapons Testing in Australia

Queensland, Australia set the stage for some awful chemical weapons testing on human subjects. The year 1942 brought Australia into the thick of World War II hostilities when Japanese aggression brought more questions than answers about how mustard gas might behave and deliver harm in a tropical climate. The chemical weapon had already been deployed against China by Japan, sparking fears that Australia was next in line. To investigate, human experiments using a gas chamber which was moved from Townsville, Australia to Melbourne on a three-ton truck were conducted.

The trouble is, the danger of mustard gas exposure was underestimated. Over the three years to follow, a range of secret tests were done. The research included gas chamber tests involving volunteers who were Australian armed forces recruits, who apparently did not fully understand the degree of potential harm to which they were consenting to be exposed. The tropical conditions quadrupled the effects of mustard gas, leaving many with nasty injuries. At Innisfail, volunteers tested how long they could carry on their duties while exposed to burning mustard gas, while 1944 experiments on North Brook Island saw volunteers dropped into trenches after the island was doused with the deadly substance.

1. British Anthrax Simulation

Anthrax, a disease caused by the infectious gram-positive bacterium Bacillus anthracis, is rare but dangerous, a disease of livestock and also humans. Experiments concerning such nasty stuff might seem like the stock of mad scientist’s labs in a B-movie, but also form the subject of a truly mad British experiment on the public.

On July 26, 1963, researchers deliberately tossed a box out of the window of a train belonging to Northern Line as it was leaving Colliers Wood, a train station in south London. The powder was full of spores from a different bacteria, Bacillus globigii, now also known to be dangerous to human health and intended to simulate an anthrax attack on the public. Non-consenting civilians were thus exposed to an agent of ill health by the incorrect reasoning at the time that it was not harmful, but would provide researchers with trackable spores that could be collected and then “forensically” assessed to see what the pattern of agent movement, human exposure and harm would be in case of a real anthrax attack. Trainee engineers were sent forth to collect dust samples throughout the underground, samples which were indeed infected miles away from the release site. As it turns out, B. globigii is pathogenic enough to induce food poisoning, septicaemia and infections of the eye.

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