15 Bizarre Experiments Gone Tragically Wrong
“Are you a human being between the ages of 1 and 99 who often, sometimes or never has trouble falling asleep? If so, you’re a perfect candidate for a clinical study!” These things are advertised all over the place, and if you don’t mind a team of doctors probing at you like you’re a Kentucky potato farmer in a spaceship, it can be a great way to earn a little extra cash. But before reaching into your empty wallet for a business card on which to jot the clinic’s number, keep in mind that these things don’t always go so well.
The Stanford Prison Guard Experiment
In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo placed 24 undergrads in a mock prison to see what would happen when people stopped being polite and started getting real. â€¨ â€¨Unfortunately, things got a little too real. The students were randomly split into two groups: prisoners and guards. They were outfitted with uniforms and even worked under a fake warden, played by Zimbardo himself. The prisoners had to stay in their cells 24/7, but the guards worked in shifts and could go home when off-duty. â€¨ â€¨Though intended to last two weeks, the experiment was shut down after a short six days. The guards had become hostile and physically abusive, and the prisoners were showing signs of extreme stress, anxiety and depression. The fake prison environment became so compelling for the participants that even Zimbardo fell prey to the illusion and turned a blind eye to the aggression of the guards and the anxiousness and passivity of the prisoners. Sanitary conditions declined remarkably. The guards attacked the protesting prisoners with fire extinguishers on only the second day of the experiment. Prisoners were also forced to count off their ‘numbers’, and one was even locked in a closet (which they called ‘solitary confinement’) for going on a hunger strike.â€¨ â€¨This experiment marked the end of the golden age of psychology… that is, the time when you could get away with anything and not have to worry about so-called “regulations” and “crimes against humanity”. When all was said and done, the once psychologically healthy participants were returned to their normal lives. Don’t worry about them; they were compensated $15 dollars a day for their trouble, and with a good health plan, that will cover the co-pay for their therapists. â€¨ â€¨
The Milgram Obedience Experiments
Intrigued by the testimony of World War II war criminal Adolph Eichmann claiming that he was merely following instructions when he ordered the deaths of millions of Jews, Milgram devised an experiment to test the strength of human will against the power of perceived authority. â€¨ â€¨He created an elaborate (though fake) machine, donned a white lab coat, and recruited 40 men from newspaper ads to join him in this lab one by one. Told that they were participating in an experiment about education, the participants (dubbed “teachers”) were told to ask a series of questions to an unseen man (the “student”) and use the machine to deliver him an electric shock for each incorrect answer. â€¨ â€¨The teachers were told that the shock generator, which looked like something out of a bizarre sci-fi nightmare, could administer shocks from 30 volts to 450 volts Its switches were labeled “slight shock”, “moderate shock”, “danger: severe shock,” and “XXX”. They weren’t told what the “XXX” button does, but I doubt they thought it meant “Vigorous Tickle”. â€¨ â€¨Now, remember that the shocks weren’t real. The student was merely an actor helping Milgram with the experiment. But as the shock level increased and the student pleaded, screamed, screeched, squealed and begged to be released, the teachers almost always kept shocking him for each wrong answer and failure to respond. It wasn’t that they wanted to. Many displayed signs of extreme stress and anxiety, but were unable to refuse the authority of the “doctor”.
65% of the participants delivered “XXX” shocks to the struggling actor behind the curtain, all because some dude in a white coat urged them on, saying “You must continue… It is essential that you continue.” Pretty shocking, to say the least. â€¨ â€¨ â€¨
Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment
In 1928 a representative of a Chicago-based charity approached the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS) with a simple mission: to offer medical aid to impoverished African Americans in the South. â€¨ â€¨The PHS and the Chicago-based Rosenwald fund began to treat men with syphilis across a number of counties in Georgia, but when the Great Depression hit, the Rosenwald Fund had to withdraw its support. The members of the PHS contemplated the old adage that when life gives you lemons, you should make a national scandal. Rather than scrap the study, they reorganized it. The study was “salvaged” and changed into an examination of the effects of untreated syphilis on living subjects. â€¨ â€¨The PHS teamed up with the Tuskegee Institute, an organization with a strong history of service to local African Americans. The participants received free medical exams, food, free transportation and the guarantee that their burial fees would be comped. How this didn’t raise a few eyebrows, it’s hard to say. But then again, these men weren’t really informed of too much. They weren’t even told that they had syphilis. Lest some other medical organization with wacky, unorthodox methods try to actually help their patients get better, the PHS worked round the clock to prevent other agencies from offering medical treatment to study participants. â€¨ â€¨In 1943, the PHS finally had access to penicillin which they administered as a cure to all patients with syphilis. This was a fabulous opportunity to get back to their roots and the original mission of their study. What was that original mission again? To help poor African Americans? It’s hard to remember, and the PHS had long forgotten as well. They refused to administer this miracle drug to study participants who would die without it. In 1972 the study was finally brought to an end with the help of whistle-blower working with the PHS. He leaked the story to the press and the national embarrassment could at last be felt.
Dr. Robert Bartholow
Not all clinical studies are advertised on subways and newspapers. Sometimes you don’t sign up or get paid, but just kind of land in the study by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is what happened to a woman named Mary Rafferty.
Dr. Robert Bartholow was the nineteenth century medical community’s answer to Hannibal Lecter. His victims, by which I mean patients (by which I mean victims), were not too thankful for this can-do attitude of his. Mary Rafferty was a 30-year-old patient who had a 2-inch-diameter hole in her skull as the result of a cancerous ulcer. As if this poor woman didn’t have it bad enough with the cancer and, you know, the giant hole in her head, Dr. Bartholow decided to try out some of his craziest experiments on her. Bartholow zapped the exposed brain tissue here and there with small electrical currents. When Rafferty said that it didn’t hurt, the good doctor took that as a sign to up the voltage. If it doesn’t sting a little, after all, why electrocute your brain? Where’s the thrill? With the strengthened electrical current coursing through her brain, Rafferty complained of pain, began convulsing and soon went into a coma. Three days later she awoke. She suffered a major seizure the very next day and died. Bartholow shrugged his shoulders. That cancer is a killer, he explained. Nothing he could do to change that. In an ideal world, Bartholow would have been thrown in prison for the rest of his life for this unethical, human experimentation. We do not live in an ideal world. He was lightly criticized by the AMA and then became Professor Emeritus at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. â€¨
Project MK-ULTRA is the name of a terrifying, covert CIA study conducted from the early 1950’s to the late 60’s. Everyone was up to some wild stuff in the 60’s. Woodstock, Janis Joplin, love beads, lava lamps, and more. I think we can forgive the CIA the same way we forgive Baby-Boomers for what transpired in this embarrassing decade of free love and excessive drug use. â€¨ â€¨Of course, the CIA wasn’t so concerned with taking LSD and putting on a record as it was with administering LSD to other people (U.S. and Canadian citizens) to see if it was a viable method of mind control. And they weren’t so much about free love as they were about utilizing a cornucopia of nightmarish methodologies to manipulate, control, subdue, and violate people. The surreptitious administration of LSD was just one of these. They also secretly gave people a lot of other drugs and chemicals, tested truth serums, physically and sexually abused people, isolated individuals and put them into forced sensory deprivation, and much more. â€¨ â€¨In the 70’s when the Baby-Boomers were watching Grease and trying to overcome the hangover of the previous decade, the lid was blown off of Project MK-ULTRA by the U.S. Congress and something called the Church Committee. A cache of documents was uncovered and the reality of these tests, carried out on unwitting people “at all social levels, high and low, native Americans and foreign”. Man oh man, the 60’s were nuts. But at least they gave us Simon & Garfunkel. â€¨
Monkey Drug Trials
Monkeys can be really cute, especially when doing things that people do. Wearing little shirts and hats, smiling, drawing pictures and even learning sign language are all so endearing. But monkeys are not so cute when taught to partake in the darkest corners of human behavior, like addiction to hard drugs. If you ever see a gang of junkie chimpanzees walking down the street late at night, turn and walk (or run for your freaking life) in the other direction. This might be the most important lesson gleaned from the “Monkey Drug Trials.”
In 1969 a bunch of monkeys were trained to use a wide array of drugs including morphine, codeine, cocaine, amphetamines and booze. Once they had learned to swig, snort and shoot themselves up sufficiently they were left on their own with a large supply of grade-A stuff. They tried to escape, were driven into a frenzy, tore off their own fingers, peeled off their own fur, and many died. The simple point of the study, to understand the way addiction and drug use functions in humans, seems to have been missed. After all, there are enough people who do this stuff willingly to themselves. Go ask them for their stories and memoirs, why don’t you? Can’t we leave the cute little hat-wearing chimps out of it?
Willowbrook State School
From 1963 to 1966 a number of atrocities were carried out in a clinical study that took place at the Willowbrook State School in New York. The school, which catered to “mentally defective persons”, undertook a research project regarding the effects of infectious hepatitis and also to test gamma globulin, a type of antibody, as an effective prevention of the disease or treatment of it. â€¨ â€¨You’d think anyone working in a school for “mentally defective persons” would have some sympathy for them. Unfortunately they were apparently seen as nothing more than human guinea pigs. The subjects of the study, all of whom were children, were intentionally infected with hepatitis — some of them through forced consumption of the stool of infected individuals. While this study was taking place, the Willowbrook School closed its doors to students who did not participate in the study. Thus, uninformed parents desperate for the specialized help that the Willowbrook School could offer their children signed their kids up. â€¨ â€¨Not even kids in Dickens novels get treated this unethically, all the more evidence that the only “mentally defective persons” in the building were the faculty who turned a blind eye and the doctors who conducted the research. â€¨ â€¨
Unit 731 was a part of the Imperial Japanese Army in charge of covert chemical and biological warfare research during World War II. Headed by one of history’s unsung d-bags, Shiro Ishii, their labs did research that involved the vivisecting of live human test subjects, many of whom were pregnant and many of whom were forcefully impregnated by the doctors themselves. People were injected with diseases, limbs were removed and then reattached to other parts of the body, individuals were frozen and thawed to test gangrene, and prisoners were raped repeatedly by individuals with syphilis and gonorrhea to conduct testing on said STDs. â€¨In a distortion of logic, morality, justice and everything good in this world, Ishii was granted immunity by the American Occupation Authorities and lived as a free man until the ripe old age of 67. An extremely graphic movie, The Men Behind the Sun, documented the horrific events in terrifying detail.â€¨ â€¨
Otto Lilenthal’s Last Flight
The desire to take to the skies with the elegance and freedom of an eagle or a dove has echoed in the human imagination since we first emerged from the caves and gazed at the splendor of the heavens. It has also led a great deal of intelligent men to die embarrassing, clumsy deaths dressed as giant man-birds. Otto Lilienthal, widely known as “the Glider King” had been so successful with his gliding flights that the dream of sustained flight seemed within reach. But on a flight in 1896 he plummeted 17 meters and made a beeline to that great chicken coop in the sky. Reportedly his last words were “Small sacrifices must be made!” Well, those might have been his last words on land, but it’s safe to assume this his actual last words were, “Oh shit!” â€¨ â€¨
MIT Study Fiasco
College students will do anything for money… except work. Clinical studies seem tailor made for the university community. A couple hours of being examined, turn and cough, and voila! Enough money for a box of cereal and a dime bag. But it might be better to just get a job at the Dairy Queen off campus. â€¨ â€¨In a tragic case of research gone wrong, a 19-year-old student at the University of Rochester died after participating in an MIT study being carried out in the U of Rochester Medical building . The study, which focused on the role of airborne chemicals in lung cancer, died two days after receiving a bronchoscopy (an intensive inside view at a person’s airways) along with a fatal does of the antithetic lidocane. â€¨ â€¨The president of the University of Rochester called the death of Hoiyan (Nicole) Wan “particularly tragic” as she died in support of “one of the basic missions of the University — research that will enable individuals to lead better lives.” It’s unclear whose lives were supposed to be bettered by a careless study like this, but there were no reported deaths at the Dairy Queen all year long. â€¨ â€¨
The Aversion Project
Tired of those pesky homosexuals always sneaking into their armed forces, the government of apartheid era South Africa conducted a number of experiments on its gay and lesbian members to see if homosexuality could be effectively cured. â€¨ â€¨The army forced over 900 gay and lesbian individuals to undergo unwanted sex-change operations throughout the 70’s and 80’s. This, of course, was only a last resort if the aversion therapies didn’t work out. The aversion therapies included electric shock, hormone therapy, and forms of sexual abuse. If these methods didn’t work, they sought new solutions through chemical castrations and radical surgeries. â€¨ â€¨While the individuals who were subjected to these horrible experiments have and will have to deal with these consequences for the rest of their lives (many of them were young at the time, the majority estimated between 16 and 24), the doctor in charge of these procedures has had to deal with very little. Dr. Aubrey Levin is currently Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Calgary’s med school. He also operates a private practice with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta. â€¨ â€¨
Elizabeth Fleischman Ascheim
Perhaps wary of the danger a clinical study can pose to its participants, some doctors prefer to test on themselves. This way, they don’t have to deal with waivers, payments, or the possibility of becoming a murderer in the name of science. But sometimes they end up dead. â€¨â€¨Elizabeth Fleischman Ascheim thought she had it all. She had even bagged a handsome, Jewish doctor as her husband, which very well might be the American dream. A dutiful wife with a healthy dose of intellectual curiosity, she quit her humdrum job as a bookkeeper to join her husband, Dr. Wolf, in the lab with his X-Ray machines. Turns out that those heavy lead smocks you have to put on at the dentist’s office are actually doing you a very valuable service. Her petticoats proved no protection against the intensity of the X-Ray machines. In 1905 Elizabeth Ascheim died, hoisted by her own petard.
A famous tombstone reads, “It is not whether you fail or triumph, it’s that you keep your word and at least try.” Written upon the grave of Karl Soucek, this is a message of daring, most certainly, but with enough outright stubbornness to make sure anyone who reads it understands why it’s on a gravestone in the first place. â€¨ â€¨Karl Soucek was a professional stuntman and daredevil who planned to ride down Niagara Falls in a special, protective capsule of his own design. Not one to be careless, he decided to test his genius in a simulation. The simulation, however, was just as terrifyingly dangerous as the actual stunt. â€¨ â€¨With the backing of a financial company seeking publicity, Karl Soucek tumbled down an artificial waterfall from the very top of the Astrodome in Texas. Intending to land in the pool at the bottom, Soucek veered off course and hit the rim of the pool instead. He died the next day. â€¨ â€¨I wonder if that tombstone quote came from the day before this accident or from the hospital bed the day after. Perhaps in a case like this the important thing is whether you triumph or fail, and not whether you stick to your bizarre personal declaration to fall down a waterfall in a barrel. The whole thing probably started with a drunken dare in a pub, anyway.
In 1965 a baby boy named David Reimer went to the hospital for a routine circumcision which ended in the accidental removal of his penis. Devastated by this horrible loss, David’s parents took the advice of psychologist John Money and gave baby David a sex change operation. He became Brenda Reimer and was never told the truth about his gender.
Little did the Reimer’s know, they were participating in an experiment at the hands of Dr. John Money . Seeking to prove his hypothesis that gender was a result purely of nurture and not of nature, Money believed that this once-in-a-lifetime chance to experiment would vindicate his belief.
The ordeal had a devastating toll on the Reimer family. Brenda’s mother was suicidal and her father an alcoholic. When she was 14 years old, and still displaying behavior typical to boys, Brenda was at last told the truth by her parents. It’s hard to imagine this conversation. Brenda’s choice was to become David again. She received a reverse sex-change operation, stopped taking estrogen, and tried to lead a normal life. Sadly, David committed suicide at 38.
The Monster Study
They say that children make great test studies. After all, most of them are too short to reach the phone and dial the number of a good lawyer. This must have been comforting to the men behind what is now called “The Monster Study. ” But then again, what if their parents sue? Just use orphans! Brilliant. â€¨ â€¨The Monster Study, conducted using 22 orphaned children as test subjects in 1939, was designed to study the cause of stuttering and speech pathology in children. Wendell Johnson of the University of Iowa was the head of the study but utilized the help of a graduate student of his, Mary Tudor, to carry it out. The children were split into two groups. Tudor administered positive speech therapy to one group and negative therapy to the other half. Positive therapy included praising, positive reinforcement, and the overlooking of minor problems with their speech. Negative therapy included intense criticism, belittling, and accusing the children of being stutterers. â€¨ â€¨Sounds like this Mary Tudor was lacking a maternal instinct or two. Many of the children she belittled for the sake of impressing her freaky prof, though they had once spoken normally, began to develop speech pathologies that would last them a lifetime. The charming name, “The Monster Study,” was coined by Johnson’s peers who found it all just appalling. When asked to answer for this disgusting study, they say that Johnson had some trouble of his own finding the words.