My husband’s brother gave him a paperback copy of The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science (2021) by Sam Kean. My husband read the book and enjoyed it, and it looked interesting. It was in my mind as a to-read book, but–as often happens–there was always something else to read and I kept putting it off. However, once Bingo got going, I was sure I could use it for something, which finally pushed me into reading it.
The Icepick Surgeon was a well-written book that kept my attention. Kean discusses a number of scientists and doctors who did bad things. Sometimes these things were done to further science, sometimes they were done for money, and sometimes they were done purely for ego. In twelve different chapters, Kean delves into twelve different stories: beginning with the pirate/naturalist William Dampier in the late 1600’s and ending with Annie Dookhan who was convicted of falsifying drug test results for thousands of criminal cases in 2013.
Each story is detailed and fascinating, but this is not always a fun book to read. Humans are capable of some horrible things, and I often had a pit of dread in my stomach as I read. For instance, one chapter is all about how Edison and his underling tortured dogs and horses with electricity to try to prove that AC is more dangerous than DC. This eventually led to the first electric chair, which was not a success.
Some of these stories I’d known about before. I had definitely heard of the Nazi’s medical testing during World War II. I had also heard of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. But I had never heard of Dr. John Cutler and his STD experiments in Guatemala. I guess because Cutler was in a foreign country, he felt freed from any ethical standards. After World War II, Cutler infected prostitutes, prisoners, and asylum inmates with STD’s without their knowledge or consent. This is an American doctor that worked for the U.S. government and had his agency’s approval during his experiments.
One of the most egregious cases was an asylum patient named Bertha. “Dr.” Cutler injected syphilis germs into her arm in February of 1948. She developed lesions and her skin began peeling off, but he denied her any treatment for three months. By August 23, 1948, Bertha was clearly dying. I guess because she was already dying, Cutler felt it was okay to inject gonorrheal pus into her urethra, eyes, and rectum, and then he reinjected syphilis. “Within days, Bertha was weeping pus from both eyes and bleeding from her urethra. She died August 27.” (168) I can’t even wrap my head around being able to do this to another human being.
Other chapters that really captured my interest were the Harvard professor that psychologically tortured an underage Ted Kaczynski for three years (Kaczynski was only seventeen when he first got to Harvard). This work may have been used by the CIA to help them with interrogations, but it seemed the professor really enjoyed making Kaczynski as upset as possible. Finally, Dr. John Money insisted that a young boy named Bruce could simply be changed to Brenda after his penis was destroyed as a baby by an incompetent surgeon. It’s not only that Money was wrong, but he had no scientific basis for his finding, he was driven by ego, he lied to the child’s parents, and sexually abused Bruce and his brother when they came for follow up appointments.
Kean frames these stories as not just a sensationalistic view of other peoples’ suffering, but to honor the victims, remember what happened to them, and learn–so that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again. He ends the book with potentially new ethical dilemmas that might come up with space travel, artificial intelligence, and other technological advances.
In the end, this book was sometimes hard to read, but it was consistently interesting, and I definitely learned some things.