Respectful Insolence

There’s a long and strange history of truly bizarre experiments done in the name of science. Alex Boese has gathered twenty of the strangest examples here. There are the usual suspects, such as the Stanford prison experiment and the Milgram obedience experiment, but there were others that I hadn’t heard of. To me, the award for the most bizarre has to be a tie between the vomit drinking doctor and this one:

Ever since the carnage of the French Revolution, when the guillotine sent thousands of severed heads tumbling into baskets, scientists had wondered whether it would be possible to keep a head alive apart from its body, but it wasn’t until the late 1920s that someone managed to pull off this feat.

Soviet physician Sergei Brukhonenko developed a primitive heart-lung machine he called an “autojector,” and with this device he succeeded in keeping the severed head of a dog alive. He displayed one of his living dog heads in 1928 before an international audience of scientists at the Third Congress of Physiologists of the USSR. To prove that the head lying on the table really was alive, he showed that it reacted to stimuli. Brukhonenko banged a hammer on the table, and the head flinched. He shone light in its eyes, and the eyes blinked. He even fed the head a piece of cheese, which promptly popped out the esophageal tube on the other end.

Brukhonenko’s severed dog head became the talk of Europe and inspired the playwright George Bernard Shaw to muse, “I am even tempted to have my own head cut off so that I can continue to dictate plays and books without being bothered by illness, without having to dress and undress, without having to eat, without having anything else to do other than to produce masterpieces of dramatic art and literature.”

Yikes.

Also of note is the infamous monkey head transplant, which was done by someone I actually knew, neurosurgeon Dr. Robert White at MetroHealth Medical Center, which is one of the hospitals affiliated with Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where I did my general surgery residency. Dr. White was a very likable guy and a very good neurosurgeon, but even then I did know about the notoriety he had gained through his experiments 20 years prior to my residency. I don’t know if he’s fully retired yet; as far as I know, he is still at Metro.

All of these are excerpted from the book Elephants on Acid, and Other Bizarre Experiments.

Comments

  1. #1 sailor
    September 16, 2007

    I am not sure I would call the one on Obedience bizarre. It shows really well how easily we can be pressured into really gross behaviour and should be a lesson for all of us.

  2. #2 decrepitoldfool
    September 16, 2007

    Brr! I saw a YouTube video of the dog-head experiment a few months ago and if the link there is the same one, I’d advise against clicking on it. It was a Soviet documentary about the experiments and that’s one set of images I did not need buried in my head.

  3. #3 Romeo Vitelli
    September 16, 2007

    Perhaps it’s just as well the dog-head experiment didn’t go anywhere. You’d have to wonder what Stalin would have done with it otherwise. Maybe he’d still be around running things. And Mao Tse-tung with him.

  4. #4 Zombie
    September 16, 2007

    The Aussie doctor who tracked down the Irukandji jellyfish probably qualifies: http://threepanelsoul.com/view.php?date=2007-09-03

  5. #5 Jeffrey
    September 16, 2007

    Some of those experiments just made me nausea, especially the cruel animal experiments. Shocking a puppy! The turkey one made me laugh though — turkeys are even less picky than guys (or so it would seem from the “Would You Go To Bed With Me Tonight?” experiment.

  6. #6 Clare
    September 16, 2007

    The “bizarre-ness” struck me less forcibly than the absence of ethics. Many of these would be pretty hard to get by an IRB these days — in the US, at least.

    One thing surprised me; how was the experimenter sure that the head-transplant-monkey knew that the body attached to the head was different? Had he been doing some other, equally bizarre experiments on monkey mind-reading?

  7. #7 Bob, DVM
    September 16, 2007

    Another chapter in “the long and strange history of truly bizarre experiments done in the name of science”: for years, I’ve been collecting references in the literature to scientists who experimented upon themselves. Usually self-infection with one pathogen or another was involved (with fatal results on occasion), although a couple of exceptions involve self-administration of neuromuscular blocking drugs and black widow spider venom. One of these days (probably in another 30 years or so) I’ll pull it all together and submit it somewhere. Maybe the Journal of Irreproducible Results.

  8. #8 Sid Schwab
    September 17, 2007

    Dr White was there when I was in med school at CWRU way back then. A cool guy, I always thought. And CMGH: a great county hospital. I was there before the new building. In addition to White on the surgical end of the neurological spectrum was Maurice Victor, at the other end. The man, they say, who put the hyphen in Wernicke-Korsakoff. It was a lively place.

  9. #9 Coin
    September 17, 2007

    I am fascinated that the varied head transplant/duplication/removal experiments got so far, yet I at least have never heard of them. They sound like science fiction, but apparently they’re boring scientific fact and low-tech enough they could have been done a half-century ago. And here I thought Futurama was just making this stuff up to be funny.