Mad Science That will Make You Mad: 5 Things

Caitlin McLaren - 4B Chemical
Posted on: January 15, 2017

Hello again, readers (if anyone is still brave enough to make their way through this column)! For the first issue this term, I’m going to take a break from the usual programme of gross things superstitious people did a long time ago. Don’t look so cocky, engineering students! We haven’t improved much as a species since then. Let’s talk about some of the disturbing things scientists have been up to in the not-so-distant past.

My Fingernails Taste Bitter

In the 1940s, a professor by the name of Lehan thought that you could teach people things by talking to them in their sleep. While this would be great news for anyone in a relationship, it isn’t true. However, Lehan thought that he could prove it with an experiment, and of course he went about it in the strangest possible way.

First, he set up a summer camp for young boys who had a bad habit of biting their nails. Then, he set up a phonograph record which would play the sentence “My fingernails are terribly bitter” three hundred times a night. However, the phonograph broke after a while, but instead of getting a new one like a normal person, he decided to hang around in the boys’ dormitory all night, repeating “My fingernails are terribly bitter” over and over again. All night. Lehan reported by the end of the summer that many of the boys had been cured of their bad habit, but the results were not reproducible. Then again, I don’t think you could really do that again these days.

The Tearoom Sex Study

Have you thought about doing a PhD? What would you do it about? There is so much to study in the world, and you can get away with doing all kinds of things in the name of science. Case in point: the sociologist Laud Humphreys wrote his PhD dissertation about anonymous homosexual trysts in public washrooms. This was in 1970, because of course it was. How did he gather his information? Extensive field research, of course. That is to say, he presented himself to his, er, test subjects as a random voyeur, and offering to watch out for the police while watching the… experiments.

The question of this study was to see if most of the men engaging in gay sex were gay; oddly enough, many of them weren’t. While this study seems both creepy and pointless, Humphreys actually did good work: he helped to dispel the stereotype that gay men would prey on unsuspecting straight men at random. (Of course they don’t, which seems obvious today, but back in the day you could do your PhD on that.)

Dr. William Beaumont and the Stomach

In 1822, a man named Alexis St. Martin was accidentally shot at short-range with a musket, which blew his stomach open. He survived against all odds, but was left with a permanent hole in his stomach. Instead of healing closed, the edges of the stomach-hole attached themselves to the edges of the skin-hole, leaving a window into his digestive system. The doctor who saved St. Martin’s life was called William Beaumont, who thought this whole thing was pretty cool. He kept St. Martin around, running experiments on him where he would, say, drop pieces of meat into his stomach while holding them on a string, in order to pull them out later. He also tried extracting stomach juices and experimenting with them. In the meantime, Beaumont also made his test subject do his chores for him, and got him to sign a contract as a servant (taking advantage of the fact that he couldn’t read). If this sounds rather dickish, it was, and St. Martin didn’t really like it. Eventually he left and went home to Canada, and wouldn’t come back even though Beaumont kept spamming him with letters asking him to undergo more experiments.

Although it sounds rather gruesome, this led to some important scientific results. Before Beaumont’s experiments, people didn’t have any idea that digestion was a chemical process, not a physical one (i.e. contracting muscles grinding everything up). Beaumont also figured out that stomach acid is HCl.

Facial expressions experiment

Facial-recognition software is becoming more and more of a thing these days, but it’s been in the works for a while. In 1924, a grad student named Carney Landis wanted to see if everybody made the same facial expressions when exposed to the same stimuli. Accordingly, he rounded up some volunteers, painted lines on their faces to help analyze their expressions, and then proceeded to stimulate them. If that sentence makes you go “Hurr hurr!” you are absolutely right, because his stimuli included making them watch porn. However, the sexiness was rather undermined by his also making them smell ammonia and dip their hand in a bucket of frogs (unless you’re into that). As the pièce de résistance, he would hand them a live rat and ordered them to cut its head off. If they refused, he would just decapitate it in front of them. The result of all this perversion and animal cruelty was the discovery that different people make different facial expressions. Stop the presses!

Dogs’ heads

If you think the above scientists didn’t give a damn, wait till you get a load of the Soviets. The government liked to show off their science game and didn’t care that much about human life, so animal life was totally up for grabs. If you are a dog lover, you might want to skip the next bit.

In 1928, a doctor named Sergei Brukhonenko invented what was basically an early form of a heart-lung machine. Naturally, the best way to show it off was to cut off a dog’s head and keep it alive. He demonstrated this to other scientists by showing them a decapitated dog’s head, and then shining bright lights in its eyes, scaring it with hammer bangs, etc. Capitalist pigs were duly impressed and freaked out.

However, Mother Russia wasn’t done with dogs yet. In 1954, another guy named Vladimir Demikhov figured out how to surgically attach an extra head to a dog. He created around twenty two-headed dogs, none of which lived longer than a month. This work did help pave the way for heart transplants, so there’s that.

Of course, America never likes being outdone by Russia, so as soon as that happened, the American government gave Robert White funding to transplant a monkey head onto a new body. It survived for more than a day, and was reportedly pretty pissed off about the whole thing.