Science Crimes: From Grave Robbers To An Icepick Surgeon

23:40 minutes

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Imagine a novel full of true crime thrillers, with just one twist: every crime in it was committed in the name of science. This is the premise of the new book The Icepick Surgeon, which covers the biggest scientific crimes in history, starting all the way back in Ancient Egypt. 

From Cleopatra to Thomas Edison, scientists have been responsible for some dastardly crimes throughout history. We’re talking grave robbing, torture, murder, espionage, and more.

All of these crimes were committed in the name of research. So how do scientists lose sight of their humanity as they conduct their experiments? And what science crimes may be in our future? Author Sam Kean joins Ira to talk about the book.

Segment Guests

Sam Kean

Sam Kean is a science writer. He’s the author of The Bastard Brigade and Caesar’s Last Breath. He’s based in Washington, D.C.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Imagine a novel full of true crime thrillers with just one twist– every crime in it was committed in the name of science. This is the premise of the new book, The Icepick Surgeon, from author Sam Kean. From Cleopatra to Thomas Edison, scientists have been responsible for some dastardly crimes throughout history. We’re talking grave robbery, torture, murder, espionage, and more. How did scientists lose sight of their humanity as they conduct their experiments? And what science crimes may be in our future.

Joining us to talk about his newest release is Sam Kean, currently based in Washington, DC. Welcome to Science Friday.

SAM KEAN: Hi, thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I didn’t think about Cleopatra as being a scientist either. I’m sure most of my listeners don’t. How did she get into that realm?

SAM KEAN: She was interested just in general things going on in medicine, in her court, stuff like that. While she was interested in a lot of things, things like poisons, she was really interested in the dark arts in general, but a question arose among doctors in her court when you can first tell a male from a female in the womb. And she came up with sort of a– allegedly came up with a very dastardly experiment to try to figure the answer to this question out.

It involved forcibly impregnating her maidservants, and then opening them up at different days to figure out when they could tell the sex of the baby in the womb.

IRA FLATOW: Ah. I knew when I picked up the book and I looked at the cover and it said Icepick Surgeon, we were in for some interesting stories from what an icepick does to your skull to other kinds of stuff.

SAM KEAN: Yeah. I was really trying to look at a lot of different– I mean, basically it’s a tour of the criminal arts, but through the lens of science where scientists are committing these dastardly deeds in the name of science, in the pursuit of knowledge. And what really, I think, sort of fascinated me about these stories was that the pursuit of knowledge is usually a good thing. It’s what drives scientists. It’s a good thing, a good motivator.

But in some cases, the stories in the book show, the people got so obsessed with the topic or idea, they just took things way, way too far, trampled ethical boundaries, and often committed crimes in the name of science.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. You do point that out in all the cases. You do have a little bit of a morality or an ethics lesson after the end of each chapter of your book about what was going on there. So let’s get right into some of these. Do you have a favorite story?

SAM KEAN: A few stories kind of stand out in my mind. The title story about the icepick surgeon Walter Freeman was one that stands out. There’s another story that I really enjoy about the so-called anatomy riots.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that was something. Go ahead with that one.

SAM KEAN: Yeah. So this took place in the late 1700s. And essentially at the time, doctors needed bodies to dissect. They needed to figure out how the body’s put together. Their knowledge about the human body was fairly rudimentary, and they needed to know more details about it. Unfortunately, people just didn’t donate their bodies to medicine back then. There were societal and religious taboos against it.

So doctors really struggled to find bodies, and essentially what they did is either robbed graves themselves, or they had commerce with what were called resurrectionists or sack-’em-up men who would basically rob graves for them and get the bodies to them under the cover of night, often.

And eventually, especially because they were kind of focusing on poor people, minorities, immigrants, those were the groups that usually had their bodies stolen. And after a while, they frankly just got sick of it and they started to riot. And there were several riots, actually, in early American history. I think one historian counted like 17 of them or something all over the country. It was pretty remarkable.

But the one I focus on in the book took place in New York City in the late 1700s where essentially a doctor was trying to dissect a body, and some boys, some small street urchins were kind of peeking in the window going, ooh, ah, a dead body. And the scientist was a little annoyed by this and pulled kind of a crass joke in that he started waving the dead person’s arm at the boys and said something like, yoo hoo, this is your mother, I just dug her up!

And unfortunately, one of the boys had just lost his mother. And he ran home to the father, was sort of crying about this. The father heard this, marched out to his late wife’s grave, started digging, and found nothing inside her grave. And he was apparently not the only one who was mad about this.

So we started rounding people up. They got a few people together and they actually stormed the hospital. Some of the doctors fled. Another doctor hid up a chimney. And they took the bodies inside, the rioters took the bodies inside and dragged them out to the street, started reburying them, smashed all their equipment, and this basically kicked off a couple of pretty bad days of riots.

IRA FLATOW: And one of the main characters who is doing a lot of the dissection and receiving bodies was somebody named Dr. Hunter. Tell us about him.

SAM KEAN: Yeah. He was a really fascinating character. He was based in Scotland in the 1700s, 1800s. And essentially he was obsessed with dissecting bodies. And he did a lot of really groundbreaking research. And there’s no question that if you just look at his science, he did some amazing stuff.

But he did, again, sort of have interactions with the resurrectionists who were digging up bodies. I think he personally dissected thousands in his life. So a lot of dealings with these people. But he also did some other things that even people at the time were sort of horrified by. And I think that’s one of the things I kind of use in the book as a guideline for whether we can judge their actions as moral or not, is how people, his contemporaries, his peers reacted.

And in this case, they were horrified because there was a giant, a man named Charles Byrne. Some tabloids then said he was eight feet tall. He was very, very tall he would go around exhibiting himself. And Hunter got obsessed with getting Byrne’s body and dissecting it and putting it on display.

And he essentially tricked Byrne– the people in his funeral and got the body away from them. I don’t want to spoil too much of it, but he essentially pulled some fast– some fast deeds on them and got the body away from them, stole it. And it’s still in the museum to this day. So we’re still dealing with the fallout of some of these issues even to this day.

IRA FLATOW: So you can see the skeleton of that guy?

SAM KEAN: I’m not sure if it’s still actually on display or not, but yeah, it’s definitely at the museum still.

IRA FLATOW: And you talk about the ethical considerations, because as you write in your book, and I’m going to quote here, “Hunter made dozens of anatomical discoveries, including the tear ducts and olfactory nerve. He oversaw the first artificial insemination in humans and pioneered the use of electricity from crude batteries to jumpstart the heart.” He did all kinds of good stuff, but when you weigh it against all this other ethical morass he got into, it just doesn’t hold up.

SAM KEAN: Yeah. And his intentions were good. And he wanted to help people. He wanted to make doctors better, he wanted to cure diseases, he was a medical reformer, medical education, stuff like that. But then, as you said, on the other side of the ledger were all of these kind of bad things he did where he was tricking people to steal their bodies, digging up the bodies of people who did not want to be dug up and dissected. So yeah, it’s a really hard, ambiguous case to understand whether we should think of him as someone who did good for the world or someone who did more bad than good.

IRA FLATOW: And you talk about that in terms of the Nazi atrocities committed on people in concentration camps and people captured by the Nazis. The Mengele type of surgeries and experimentation where none of that should or could ever be used as a basis for scientific research.

SAM KEAN: Yeah. I mean, a lot of the Nazi experiments were just plain sadistic or they were just trying to inflict pain on people. And there’s really no medical basis for it, there’s no scientific basis, and there’s really nothing we can learn that’s worthwhile from those experiments. So that’s why a lot of that has been sort of buried and forgotten, and we don’t really talk about it or reference it because there just was no good medical basis for it.

IRA FLATOW: One of my favorite stories in the book is something I have read about and written about over the years, and that is the works of Thomas Edison and the lengths he went to beat his business rival, George Westinghouse, going so far as to invent the first electric chair. Tell us– this is a fascinating story. I’ll have you sum it up, please.

SAM KEAN: Yeah. So essentially, Edison was involved in DC current to direct current. And direct current can do a lot of great things. It’s the basis of our computer and stuff like that. But it’s not so good for transmitting power over long distances. And Edison did not have the patents on AC power-generating equipment. Those are mostly in the hands of his rival, Nikola Tesla, and his business rival, George Westinghouse.

And Edison, for all his great inventions– the phonograph, the light bulb that he developed with his team, all that stuff, his inventions really didn’t make a lot of money. And he was very interested in making money. Wanted to fund his research lab, become sort of an American icon, this titan of business. And he decided that he had to beat Westinghouse and Tesla in the electricity-generating game, essentially.

And so what he did was he started pulling all of these kind of dastardly stunts where he would bring dogs on stage and he would electrocute them with AC power to show that it was supposedly worse. Did the same thing with horses, cows, stuff like that. But then, as you said, he also got into the first electric chair.

And there’s one letter especially I just found kind of fascinating where Edison actually early in his career was against the electric chair. His reasoning was that all people have potential and everyone can be redeemed, and I don’t want to snuff out the last chance someone might have to redeem themselves. But someone approached him about building an electric chair in New York state, and I guess he saw a business opportunity in this, because he wrote the guy a letter the first time and said no, I’m not interested.

Second time he came back after the guy pleaded a little bit and Edison was getting beaten pretty badly in the market at this point, and he said, well, maybe you’ve kind of convinced me, kind of changed my mind. And in fact, I’ll help you out a little bit. I can point you to the best kind of equipment for this, which is built by George Westinghouse in Pittsburgh.

So he very helpfully told him– told this the man who was interested in building the electric chair to go to his rival and to use AC equipment in order to kill people with it, essentially to discredit George Westinghouse. So Edison really had kind of a ruthless side to him that we don’t often see in sort of the popular histories.

IRA FLATOW: And of course, his idea was if you could electrocute somebody with AC current, imagine what it could do to you in your own home.

SAM KEAN: Yeah. He had all these wild stories about how even if you would touch like a brass doorknob or something, you would be shocked and you would die. And people were afraid to use keys in their houses when they had AC power because he just told all these wild stories, and essentially he was so popular and famous that newspapers would just reprint anything he said as if it were fact.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And in fact, one of his– I think it might have been one of his lawyers, one of his compatriots said, well, let’s change the definition of electrocution and let’s call it Westinghousing someone just to make it even worse?

SAM KEAN: Yeah. But they didn’t have the word electrocute at the time, so they didn’t know what to call death of the electricity. So I believe a newspaper or something held a contest and they ask people to write in. And there were some really great ones. It was electrocuss and Blitzen Todd and all these great names, but one of Edison’s lawyers suggested they try to popularize the word Westinghoused in order to further discredit George Westinghouse, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. One of the most infamous medical chapters in American history is the Tuskegee syphilis study where researchers found Black men who had syphilis and observed their symptoms for years without offering them any treatment, even though penicillin was available, and maybe not even informing the patients that they had syphilis, and you recount that in your book.

SAM KEAN: Yeah. As you said, both of those things happened where they did not give them penicillin even when it became widely available. And yeah, in some cases would not even tell them that they had syphilis. They would also lure them into the clinic with promises of free treatment for– they called it– the euphemism was bad blood if you had syphilis. They just said you had bad blood. And they would call them in for supposed special free treatment, they called it.

And once they got there, it was essentially a bait and switch. It was kind of like right out of a telemarketer’s scam book. They would say, it’s your last free chance, you have to come in this week. And once they had him in there, they would run tests on them, they would do extremely painful spinal taps on them. And really, really abused their trust and their power over these people. And it went on an incredibly long time, decades and decades and decades, until it finally got sort of exposed in the early 1970s.

One of even the most scandalous things about it that I talk about in the book is that the word exposed isn’t even really right, because they weren’t even hiding what they were doing. And that’s one of the more scandalous things, is that they didn’t really even think this was bad enough where they needed to hide what they were doing. They were publishing papers on this the entire time.

IRA FLATOW: And in fact, one doctor involved in the experiment, you write, was quoted as saying my idea of heaven is unlimited syphilis and unlimited facilities to treat it.

SAM KEAN: Yeah. And that is the point where I really think it just kind of– I understood what was going on in their mind. They had stopped seeing them essentially as human beings where the goal of medicine is to cure people, to help people. These people had essentially become biological Petri dishes where they could run their experiments.

And yeah, I mean, there are some sort of fascinating aspects of any disease. But when you lose picture of them as human beings, that is where I think it really kind of went off the rails.

IRA FLATOW: And did you find any commonality in all these stories about the point where the scientists lost the picture of people as human beings? Did you think about that? What’s going on? At what point– is there a breaking point or just a discontinuity?

SAM KEAN: I think in most cases, they sort of broke bad slowly, in that you just see them take steps by steps– little compromises in each case. And I think one– I did try to kind of talk about the psychology, what they were thinking, how they lost their way. And one common thing I did notice was tunnel vision. That is one of the absolute big red flags. When they are so focused on it, that they basically lose track or lose sight of everything else, ethics and morals included. All they care about is getting the data, finishing the experiment, something like that. That becomes our overriding concern.

I would want people to take away that these things did happen, but that if we really learn the stories and try to figure out what happened, I think we can do better in the future.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking to author Sam Kean about his fascinating, shall I call it gruesome– wonderfully gruesome new book, The Icepick Surgeon, looking at some dastardly deeds of scientists. Any fascinating science crimes that did not make the cut?

There was one in that it was definitely would have fit in with these other rogues, no doubt. But it actually talked about it in an earlier book of mine, The Violinist’s Thumb which deals with genetics. And that story involved a Soviet biologist in the 1920s, a man named Ivanov. And Ivanov was fascinated with the idea that human beings and chimpanzees and orangutans and such had shared an ancestor in the not-too-distant past, a few million years ago. And he wanted to explore this idea, wanted to kind of experiment on it.

But the way that he decided to investigate this was he decided to actually mate an orangutan with a human being and just see what happens. And he got kind of alarmingly far in this experiment before even the people– like this sort of hard-boiled people in the Soviet Union said no, we cannot cross this line, and they shot him down. But that is an example of someone who is doing these kind of things that would have made the cut had I not put it in a different book.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the book. Why write this book about the unsavory characters of science right now? Why is it relevant today?

SAM KEAN: I think it’s relevant for a couple of reasons. I guess I’d always been fascinated by true crime stuff and the idea, again, that you have someone doing something that in theory should be good, pursuing knowledge, but it gets twisted into this dark way. And another thing I wanted to do is just make sure that we are facing up to some of the things that science has in its past, the skeletons in his closet.

And I think unquestionably, science has done much more good than harm in the world, both in curing diseases, new technologies, and even to me, kind of opening up kind of a spiritual aspect. I really think science changes the way you look at the world and it makes you think the world is more amazing than it ever was before. So I love that aspect of science.

But I do think we need to be honest that there were cases, usually isolated cases where people did bad things. And I think it’s better to face those things and to be honest about them, especially because nowadays science is very powerful. And as we’re moving forward, we probably will run into more and more of these ethical conflicts.

And with the book, I was really trying to make sure that I was telling stories. They’re all stories based with humans who did bad things. The victims, you get to have their perspective on these kind of things as well. Because I think when it’s in a story form, it’s much more powerful. When you’re just talking about ethics in the abstract, that doesn’t pack the punch the way that a story does.

And so that’s really what I was trying to do is tell these stories so that we have these ethical strictures in mind going forward and can hopefully do better in the future.

IRA FLATOW: Well, we have something going on right now are in the recent past. I’m talking about the CRISPR researcher in China editing two embryos, right? That wasn’t so long ago.

SAM KEAN: Yep. A few years ago, yeah. And, I mean, it’s unfortunate that it happened. I was heartened to see, though, that you had basically the entire scientific community step forward and say, this was unacceptable. The researcher did not get permission, did not discuss this with anyone else. Did a bad job of it anyway. Even Nobel Prize winners who had invented the technology were standing up and saying, absolutely not, we cannot do this in the future. So that was heartening to me to see that people are aware of these ethical considerations now and are taking them seriously.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that artificial intelligence might show up one day to have a dark side to it and be maybe the subject of your next book?

SAM KEAN: Yeah, maybe. Yeah, I hope there’s another sequel to this book, right? Yeah. So at the end of the book, actually, I have an appendix where I talk about the future of crime and how new technologies and things might enable wholly new types of crime in the future. So I focus specifically on space, colonizing space and different crimes that could happen up in space. I talk about genetic engineering, things like CRISPR. And also artificial intelligence.

And even nowadays, you can see glimmers where people talk about biases and algorithms, things like that. So we’re already starting to even see some these issues pop up, but if computers get exponentially more powerful than they are even now, we could see even bigger problems in the future, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: And what kind what kind of crimes in space are you contemplating?

SAM KEAN: Well, a lot of it has to do with just what is going to happen when humans do bad things in space? Because they’ll be on maybe Mars or something like that. Are we going to send a police force up there to arrest someone? It’s going to take over a year to get there. So do we have jurisdiction over people like that? What if it’s a mix of people from all different countries around the world? Who’s in charge of that?

Or do we let them police themselves, which might not be fair, because if they have someone just sitting in a jail cell somewhere, that person’s using oxygen, they’re using food. That’s very, very precious on another planet. So that doesn’t seem fair to them either. And we really haven’t hashed out what we’re going to do when inevitably humans commit crimes in other places.

IRA FLATOW: Or when humans commit more of these crimes, even here on Earth. I mean, it doesn’t seem like there’s any way to prevent this, does it?

SAM KEAN: I don’t think there’s a way to prevent it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t at least think about it and try to minimize the harm. I think the bigger folly would be to say, well, we can’t stop it completely, so we’ll just do nothing at all. I do think we– yeah, we can think about it and try to at least curb some of the worst aspects of it.

IRA FLATOW: Sam, we have run out of time. Excellent book, as always.

SAM KEAN: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Sam Kean, author of the fascinating new book, The Icepick Surgeon. If you need something else to read, take this one to the beach with you. Thanks for joining us again, Sam.

SAM KEAN: Thanks for having me.

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