Evil science 101

Margaret Thatcher passed away this week, but did you know that prior to her prime ministerial duties, the Iron Lady worked as a research chemist? In a completely unrelated train of thought, I’ve been pondering the five most “evil” scientists of all time….

5/ Vladimir Demikhov
Demikhov was a pioneering surgeon whose research into organ transplant operations heralded a new era in heart and lung surgery. In fact, he was the mentor of Arsenii Konevskiy, the first surgeon to successfully perform a human heart transplant. However, poor Vlad is better remembered for some rather gruesome head transplant operations he conducted in 1950s Russia. When a puppy was injured in a car crash, Demikhov stitched its head onto the body of an adult dog. The animal(s) lived for several days before dying due to immune rejection. As a one-off this could perhaps be overlooked, given the doctor’s unarguable contribution to medicine. However, the total failure of the experiment didn’t stop Demikhov from repeating it another 19 times.

4/ Johann Dippel
Born at Castle Frankenstein, urban legend states that Dippel was the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s mad scientist. If (wild) rumour is to be believed, Dippel spent much of his spare time attempting to reanimate corpses, Frankenstein style. Creepy. Other rumours about Dippel suggest that he was an avid alchemist, who believed that he had found the elixir of life – a grim sounding concoction made from the bones, blood and bodily fluids of animals. As he died in 1734, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that he hadn’t. Randomly, it’s been suggested that his elixir provided the base for the invention of the dye Prussian Blue, from which cyanide compounds can be extracted. This gains extra evil points as Prussian Blue was also the name of a teenage neo-nazi musical duo. In actual fact it’s more likely that Dippel was nothing more than a mediocre scientist and inflammatory speaker – he was eventually imprisoned for heresy.

FYI: Another scientist, Giovanni Aldini, was famed for a morbid stage show in which he applied an electric current to an executed prisoner. This made the convict’s mouth and other, ruder, body parts twitch furiously, giving the appearance of reanimation. An excellent party trick granted, but pretty morally dubious, especially as the prisoner did not give his consent.

3/ Hwang Woo-suk
Reading the papers, it can often seem that scientists are dead set on destroying the world. Between the scare stories and the often woefully inaccurate representation of scientific breakthroughs, scientists constantly have to battle against the media in order to be portrayed in a fair light. One thing that certainly doesn’t improve public trust in science is eminent researchers being revealed as fraudsters. Step forward Hwang Woo-suk, a modern day villain of the scientific community. Hwang published two papers in the journal Science in 2004/5 in which he claimed that he could make embryonic stem cells (which can give rise to any other cell type in the body) from skin cells. This was an incredible breakthrough, and looked set to pave the way for stem cell therapies that used a patients own cells. But the results were faked. What’s more, Hwang was found to be paying women (including his female researchers) to donate their eggs for use in his research. Smooth. The papers were retracted and Hwang was jailed for embezzlement and bioethical breach. However, in what must surely appear to all rational people a ludicrous breach in judgement, Hwang is now permitted to practice science once again, and several of his recent papers have been published. Evil science 1, common sense 0.

2/ Robert Oppenheimer
Surely there are few less flattering nicknames than ‘father of the atomic bomb’. Oppenheimer was in charge of the Manhattan Project, which resulted in the development of the first atomic bomb during World War II. By all accounts he was a hands-on leader, taking part in as many aspects of the project as possible. He actively campaigned for his creations to be tested on people, resulting in the bombing of Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. He may have had a change of heart after learning of the devastation caused by the bombs, as he later vehemently opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb. Talking about his feelings after the first successful test of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer said that the (rather impressive) thought that went through his head was a quote from the 700-verse Hindu epic the Bhagavad Gita; “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” If only all evil scientists were so eloquent.

1/ Josef Mengele
Mengele is probably the best known evil scientist around. A medical officer at Auschwitz and Birkenau, he was known as the ‘Angel of Death’ to the prisoners. Mengele is infamous for his “scientific studies” into heredity, conducted on twin interned in the concentration camps. His grisly experiments included injecting dye into the eyes of children in an attempt to change the colour of their irises, and surgery in which he sewed two twins together to recreate conjoined twins. That Mengele had a strong scientific background in heredity, having received a PhD in anthropology in 1935, makes his cruelty all the more shocking. A truly evil scientist.

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One thought on “Evil science 101

  1. Pingback: Synthetic Biology: playing God, or just plain odd? (part 1) | allinthegenes

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