CBR15 BINGO: Violence, for murder, icepick lobotomies, cruelty, and general skulduggery described in this book
The Icepick Surgeon is the latest book by Sam Sean, my favorite science writer. If you haven’t read any of his books (like this one, or this one, or this one, or this one), they delightfully balance science with history in a series of true-life tales. As the the title indicates, The Icepick Surgeon explores the darker side of science, citing examples of how humankind has benefited from some really reprehensible behavior.
Take, for example, William Dampier, a late 17th century biologist-turned-pirate whose (biology) work influenced Charles Darwin. An accomplished naturalist, Dampier was the first to notice variations among groups of the same species and coined the term for it– subspecies. Unfortunately, he was also, in Kean’s words, a “rogue and a scallywag.” At one point he commanded a ship in the Royal Navy but was court-martialed for cruelty. He died in debt after years of pirating, though that might not be such a bad end, considering that some critics contend his science, “however groundbreaking, blazed a trail for colonialism and was therefore a crime against humanity.”
Dampier’s crimes seem quaint when you consider that many naturalists took advantage of slave ships to reach destinations in Africa and the Americas, and even commissioned the crews to collect specimens for them. Henry Smeathman, an anti-slavory entomologist whose dream was to become a “gentleman scientist,” went on an exhibition to Sierra Leone where the only settlement available for him to stay in was a slave colony. He began rationalizing his association with the slavers until he became downright chummy with the genteel merchants and ships captains who were profiting most from slavery. Eventually he began making deals–trading commodities–to get his specimens back to England; lest we forget, humans were a commodity that could be bartered at that time. By the late 1700s, Smeathman was selling slaves to plantations to fund his research.
So should we toss out any science that came from unethical means/experiments? Entomology and taxonomy may not seem critical to human survival, but what about research into diseases or hypothermia? In the 20th century, Black men in Tuskegee, Alabama, were left untreated for syphilis long after a treatment became available. Impoverished people in Guatemala were intentionally injected with syphilis without informed consent as part of a related study. Some of the only data we have related to reviving hypothermia victims comes from Nazi “experiments.” Should we not use any of the data that we have from these examples? Or are we best honoring those who died by using the information? Opinions are, as you can imagine, divided. At a minimum, we need to be aware of the source and the suffering of those who made scientific discoveries possible.
I was just as entranced by this book as by Kean’s others; however, I do think it could have been tighter thematically. Contrary to the expectation set by the subtitle, not all of the characters we meet perpetrated their particular atrocities for the good of science. Take, for instance, Annie Dookhan, a chemist who worked for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and falsified an estimated 34,000 drug tests between 2003 and 2013. By taking the shortcut of not actually performing the tests, she stripped thousands of people accused of drug crimes of their due process. While we don’t know for sure what her motivation was, it appears to be some combination of wanting to put away bad guys and a desire for glory. As a result, more than 21,000 convictions tied to evidence she handled were overturned.
The murder of George Parkman by fellow Harvard professor John White Webster wasn’t motivated by scientific advancement either, but by money. It’s a ripping tale, all the same, and one which you can read about in more detail in Paul Collins’s wonderful Blood & Ivy. Thomas Edison’s shenanigans against Nicola Tesla and George Westinghouse, including the public electrocution of dogs to demonstrate how dangerous Westinghouse’s AC current was, were motivated by business and general douchebaggery. (As usual, Kean’s wonderful asides and footnotes correct a couple of misconceptions. First, Westinghouse turned out to be an even bigger asshole than Edison by screwing Tesla out of his earnings. Two, Edison was not responsible for the execution of Topsy the elephant, though his film company did record it.)
This book has many more fantastic and mind-blowing tales about scientists who, in many cases, were trying to do their best for humankind. Some of the worst villains in this book were also great heroes, depending on how you want to slice and dice their lives. It’s appropriate that Kean opens the book with a quote by one of the greatest scientific minds of the twentieth century:
“Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong; it is character.”