Humans are naturally inquisitive, always questioning the world around them and pushing the boundaries of what is possible. One area which this is most noticeable is in scientific research and discovery. Over the last 150 years, great leaps forward in knowledge have resulted from numerous experiments and tests leading to everything from breakthrough medicines to new forms of communication. Our understanding of ourselves and the world around us has all increased dramatically thanks to experiments focussed on everything from disease control and drug use to human psychology and physiology.
While we often applaud the many positive outcomes of scientific experimentation, there are aspects and back stories to many discoveries which can make us cringe or voice disapproval. Sometimes great scientific breakthroughs are achieved by means and methods which are considered unethical or controversial. Likewise, some experimentation seems pointless, unnecessary or absurd leading many to question why it happens at all. Stem cell studies today, electroconvulsive therapy in the twentieth century, contagious disease experiments of the late nineteenth century – all faced support and opposition of varying degrees as researchers looked to expand human knowledge.
The following list looks at 20 of the more bizarre and controversial experiments conducted over the past 200 years. Some of these experiments and studies will appear to be nothing more than cruel acts – like children pulling the wings off flies and burning ants with a magnifying glass. Others might leave you questioning the point of the experiment or wondering what the goal was in the first place. There are a few here that seem to be nothing more than mad science, like something out of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Finally there are the controversial experiments which show that human beings can do monstrous things with the slightest prompting. That said, keep in mind that most of the following experiments helped expand our knowledge of ourselves and the world around us or laid the groundwork for future medical and scientific breakthroughs.
20. Black Widow Spider Bite
Professor Allan Blair worked at the University of Alabama’s medical school in the early twentieth century. In the early 1930s there was a genuine debate over whether or not the Black Widow spider was in fact harmful to humans. Many skeptics argued that the tiny arachnid was not toxic to humans, something Blair set out to disprove. The Canadian-born professor subjected himself to a rather lengthy bite from a female Black Widow in 1933. Blair pressed the spider against his hand and endured a 10 second long bite complete with a generous injection of venom. He then began recording the effects. Pain, dizziness and a drop in blood pressure all led him to the hospital where things progressively got worse. Sweating, vomiting and diarrhea soon set in along with significant pain and swelling. The effects of the bite lingered for days. When he had recovered enough to begin living normally again, he found a scientific community more than willing to accept the fact that Black Widows are toxic to humans.
19. Elephants on Acid
Apparently in the 1960s everyone and everything was on drugs. In 1962 a group of Oklahoma City researchers wanted to see what the effects of LSD were on a full-grown elephant. The researchers specifically wanted to know if the acid would send the elephant into a fit of extreme aggression known as ‘musth.’ The elephant was injected with 297mg of LSD – 3,000 times the typical human dose. After running around for a few minutes, the massive creature fell over and died. Immediate debate began over whether the acid itself or the size of the dose had killed the animal. In the 1980s, the experiment was repeated but this time the elephants ingested the acid which was put in their water. No elephants died and researchers were able to observe the elephants become sluggish and make strange chirping noises.
18. High G Experiments
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the military still had many questions concerning g-forces. In particular, it was not fully understood how many g-forces a person could handle, especially when ejecting from a plane. The belief was that nobody could live past 18 g. Colonel John Stapp, a USAF flight surgeon volunteered to undergo experiments involving extreme acceleration and deceleration. His most famous tests involved the use of a rocket sled which accelerated quickly and then came to a very sudden stop. In 1954 Sapp reached over 630mph on a rocket sled, decelerating to a stop in around one second. He had experienced 46 g, suffered a variety of injuries which including his eyes almost coming out of his head and eye bleeding, loss of sight and blisters on his body. Nonetheless, his work changed fighter aircraft design and the amount of protection given to pilots.
17. Trying to get Yellow Fever
In the early nineteenth century, Stubbins Ffirth, after noting yellow fever cases declined in the winter months, attempted to prove that the illness wasn’t contagious, but instead caused by an excessive amount of food, heat and noise. How did Ffirth prove this? He took vomit from yellow fever victims and tried all sorts of ways to get it into his body. He poured it in his eyes, covered his body in it and even drank whole glasses of the ‘black vomit.’ Not done there, Ffirth tried exposing himself to the blood, saliva and urine of yellow fever patients – all with no result. While you can’t say he didn’t go all out to prove his theory, later research showed some flaws. First, the fluids he was using likely came from patients who were no longer contagious. Second, to be contracted, yellow fever must be injected directly into the bloodstream. This was discovered decades later when a Cuban researcher linked the sickness with mosquitos.
16. DIY Heart Catheter Surgery
Today, inserting a catheter into the heart is used for a variety of reasons, including diagnosis and assessment of heart ailments and functions. In 1929, nobody had ever tried the procedure but German doctor Werner Forssmann had long argued that it was the best way to administer drugs and monitor the heart. With everyone else saying it shouldn’t be done, Forssmann anesthetised his arm and inserted a catheter into a vein. He proceeded to snake the catheter 60cm right into his heart. With the procedure still unfinished, he walked to the x-ray room to get a clear picture of what he had done, finishing the procedure while watching on a fluoroscope. Initially the head of the hospital was displeased, but attitudes soon changed when the potential of this experiment was realized.
15. The Living Severed Dog Head
In the early twentieth century, one question which continued to fascinate scientists and doctors concerned how life could continue after decapitation. Could a head be kept ‘alive’ after it was separated from the body? In the late 1920s Soviet scientist Sergei Brukhonenko demonstrated the plausibility of such a procedure. Brukhonenko used the severed head of a dog and kept the head ‘alive’ using a heart-lung machine he called an ‘autojector.’ Video evidence of this experiment exists today and it shows the head reacting to light, taste and sound. The doctor even fed a piece of cheese to the head which resulted in the food immediately coming out the esophageal tube.
14. Indecent Proposals
How would you feel if an attractive stranger of the opposite sex approached you and told you they would like to sleep with you? It would probably depend on whether you were male or female – at least that’s what one 1978 study at Florida State University found. Russell Clark, a psychologist at the university, asked his students to take part in massive survey to see which gender would be more receptive to offers of sex from complete strangers. His students approached complete strangers and repeated the phrase; “I have been noticing you around campus. I find you to be attractive. Would you go to bed with me tonight?” In what must be the most unsurprising results ever, 75% of men accepted the offer while not a single woman did.
13. Trying to Make a Chimpanzee more Human
There are many examples of humans living with and even being raised by animals in the wild. In 1931, scientists Luella and Winthrop Kellogg decided to see if the opposite was possible. The two brought Gua, a seven-month-old chimpanzee, into their home to be raised alongside their 10-month-old son Donald. Over the following months, the two were continually tested for things like using utensils, recognition and speech. In many areas, Gua tested well ahead of her ‘brother’ and only lagged behind in speech because chimpanzees cannot speak. That said, after nine months the experiment came to an end as Donald was beginning to copy Gua’s sounds and types of communication. Gua died in 1933, less than a year after she was separated from her human family.
12. Self-Inflicted Stomach Ulcers
For years the common belief was that stomach ulcers were primarily caused by stress. Barry Marshall, an Australian doctor, didn’t buy that explanation and looked to solve the riddle behind where stomach ulcers came from. In the early 1980s Marshall teamed up with Robin Warren, a doctor who had linked ulcers with a certain strain of bacteria. Together the two studied the bacterial infection and even linked it to stomach cancer. Their findings were largely ignored by the gastroenterologist community which led Marshall to the extreme. Unable to experiment on people, he decided to make himself the patient and ingested the bacteria from one of his patients. Within days Marshall displayed all the symptoms of someone affected with stomach ulcers – helping to prove that it was more than stress which caused the ailment.
11. A Two-Headed Dog
You’ve probably heard the saying ‘two heads are better than one.’ In the 1950s, Soviet scientist Vladimir Demikhov took that meaning to a whole new level. Demikhov was a pioneer in organ transplant research. As the medical community was working its way towards human transplants, he had undertaken numerous transplants involving hearts and lungs of animals. Not done there, Demikhov took a big leap towards mad-scientist status when he started transplanting a second head and upper body from one dog onto another. In these cases, both dogs were alive and conscious and each were shown to drink from bowls, eat and look around independently. Today, one of Demikhov’s dogs can be found stuffed and on display in a museum in Riga, Latvia.
10. The Monkey Head Transplant
Not to be outdone by their Soviet counterparts, the medical community in the United States undertook some radical transplant experimentation. In 1970, having been inspired by Demikhov’s work on dogs, neurosurgeon Dr. Robert White went about performing the head transplant of a monkey. The procedure involved taking the head off one monkey and putting it on another body with a fully working circulatory system. When the monkey regained consciousness it could see, hear, smell and taste. Paralysed because the spinal cord could not be reattached, White’s patient could only lay on the table, opening and closing its mouth while looking around the room eerily. Immunorejection led to the death of the monkey several days later.
9. Minovici’s Hanging Experiments
In the early twentieth century, forensic scientist Nicolae Minovici undertook the study of death by hanging while at the State School of Science in Bucharest, Romania. Minovici wanted to know what it was like for people who died by hanging. While this sounds dangerous and stupid, it’s probably a good thing he wasn’t obsessed with death by shooting. In any event, Minovici undertook a series of experiments where he or his assistants took turns hanging themselves, often suspended well above the floor. With practice, the good doctor was eventually able to endure being hung by his neck for 25 seconds. His findings were published but he died in 1941 from a vocal cord illness – no doubt not helped by his years of playing hangman.
8. The McGill Brainwasher
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Dr. Ewen Cameron worked at McGill’s Allan Memorial Institute. At the same time, he also worked for the CIA and was enrolled in their Project MKUltra – a mind control project. Cameron used his role at the McGill institute to conduct experiments on patients, most of whom had been admitted because they were suffering from anxiety or depression. Over the years, patients were given doses of LSD, placed in comas, given electroconvulsive therapy and endured tape loops with subliminal messages. In the 1960s, the CIA cancelled the project and many of Cameron’s patients were left with varying degrees of permanent side effects, including amnesia, delusions and incontinence.
7. A Cat’s View
People have always wondered how the world looks through the eyes of various animals. Dr. Yang Dan of the University of California at Berkley decided that she would go one step further and show us all how a cat sees things. In 1999, along with researchers Garett Stanley and Fei Li, Yang Dan implanted electrodes in the brain of a cat in order to pick up the signals which were being sent from the eyes. The electric signals were picked up, decoded and displayed on a monitor. The result? The decoded signals created a blurry but obvious image of what the cat was looking at – whether a person’s face or a tree.
6. Electrifying Human Corpses
Since the late eighteenth century, scientists have known that electricity can stimulate muscle reaction. In 1803, Italian scientist Giovanni Aldini decided to go on a European tour to demonstrate how electricity could make the limbs of the deceased move. In London, Aldini used the body of executed murderer George Forster. The scientists hooked up electrodes to the body and applied a current to show a startled crowd what could happen. At one point in the experiment, Forster’s arm raised and clenched its fist. Then his face twitched and one eye opened up. When a larger current was used on the whole body, the corpse writhed about, kicking its legs and terrifying spectators who thought Forster was coming back to life.
5. Remote Controlled Animals
Jose Delgado was a Spanish-born scientist who worked on understanding the brain and how it responded to electrical stimulation. He was probably best known for conducting experiments where he implanted a radio-receiver in patients that stimulated specific areas of the brain. With his radio-controlled equipment, Delgado could not only control emotions, but he could also influence physical reactions. Perhaps the most famous of these experiment involved a bull which had Delgado’s transmitter implanted in its brain. Available video footage shows the bull repeatedly charging at Delgado who, with the push of a button, stops the animal in its tracks. Chimpanzees were also used in the experiment to further demonstrate that behaviour could be modified with electrical stimulus.
4. The Stanford Prison Experiment
In 1971 at Stanford University, 24 male volunteers became guards and prisoners in a mock prison experiment in the basement of the university’s psychology building. The students selected were all healthy, ‘normal’ males with no criminal records. Yet, once in the experiment, these individuals took on a completely different persona. Those playing the guards started to use psychological punishment on the inmates – calling them by only their number, forcing them to use a bucket to go to the bathroom, offering better food to best behaved inmates and placing certain prisoners in a closet which simulated solitary confinement. The prisoners too began to act the part you’d expect – refusing to eat, barricading their doors, showing solidarity with the other prisoners. The experiment was halted after just six days when guards began showing ‘sadistic’ tendencies and ‘released’ prisoners talked of returning to help release their fellow inmates.
3. ‘Curing’ Homosexuals
In 1954, researchers at McGill University discovered that the septal region of the brain is the ‘feel-good’ area which, if stimulated, provided sensations of pleasure and sexual arousal. In 1970, Robert Heath of Tulane University hypothesized that this knowledge could be used to turn a homosexual into a heterosexual. Heath found a willing homosexual patient and inserted electrodes into his brain to stimulate the septal region. After considerable stimulation, Heath moved on to the final step in the experiment which was to introduce a female prostitute to the patient in the hopes of creating a sexual encounter. The state-sanctioned encounter eventually resulted in sexual intercourse. Did Heath ‘cure’ homosexuality? The researcher reported that the patient went back to living a homosexual lifestyle, yet had an affair with a woman at some point. All this led to the conclusion that the experiment was partly successful. Nonetheless, Heath never repeated the experiment ever again.
2. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study
Between 1932 and 1972, the US Public Health Service conducted a study on the effects of syphilis on 600 African-American males. Of the group, 399 had syphilis while the remaining did not. All the men in the study were given free medical care, food and insurance but never told they had syphilis. To make matters worse, they were never treated for syphilis as researchers merely used them as guinea pigs to see what syphilis did to the African-American versus the Caucasian body. To make the whole experiment more distasteful, it occurred over a period where the United States, along with the rest of the world, publicly condemned the unethical experiments which had been conducted on humans in the Nazi concentration camps. By the end of the experiment, 28 men had died from their untreated syphilis, 100 died from related complications, 40 wives had become infected with syphilis and 19 children had been born with the disease. Rather than administer penicillin to treat the disease after 1940, researchers provided small amounts of ineffective drugs, aspirin, and administered painful spinal-taps – all to make sure suspicions were not raised about the actual goal of the experiment.
1. The Obedience Experiment
We’d all like to think we are good human beings incapable of harming others. As Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram demonstrated in a 1961 experiment, there’s a potential monster in all of us. Milgram’s obedience study was born out of the debate concerning whether those who perpetrated or participated in the Holocaust were inherently evil or just following orders. His experiment witnessed volunteers administering shocks to an unseen student every time a wrong answer was given by the student. The unseen student was an actor and there were no shocks but the volunteer didn’t know this. With every wrong answer, the shock increased. Despite the volunteer’s discomfort as the experiment went along, Milgram showed that the majority (65%) could be convinced to continue carrying out the punishment to the maximum voltage (450w) with firm verbal prompts. Variations of Milgram’s experiment have been carried out all over the world with the same results – the majority of us would be willing to harm others with little more than firm prompting and persuading by an authority figure.