Here’s something you probably didn’t learn in your school history classes: The great Thomas Edison and his colleagues had a hand in the killing of 44 dogs, six calves and two horses in their attempt to portray alternating current technology as inherently more dangerous than the direct current technology that Edison pioneered.
This slaughter is one of the many tales that Sam Kean relates in “The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science.”
“The Icepick Surgeon” is Kean’s sixth book. His previous work examined the entertaining and sometimes macabre side of science. Now he gives us wickedness. “This book explores what pushes men and women to cross the line and commit crimes and misdeeds in the name of science,” he writes, explaining that “sometimes obsession grips them. They turn things inside out and twist what’s normally a noble pursuit into something dark.”
That doesn’t quite describe this book. “The Icepick Surgeon” is a hodgepodge of stories about malfeasance and evil, loosely grouped under a high concept.
Some of the people Kean writes about aren’t really scientists, or don’t commit their bad acts in the name of science. Take his anecdote about Cleopatra, which he uses to open the book: The historic ruler supposedly experimented on servants who had been condemned to death, forcibly impregnating them and then tearing into their wombs early in the pregnancies to determine whether she could predict the sex of the child. It’s a horrifying story. But is it true? Probably not. “The only historical mentions of this horror come from the Talmud, and on the face of it, the accounts are suspect,” Kean acknowledges. And even if we accept this thin sourcing, it probably wasn’t Cleopatra’s devotion to science that would have compelled her to commit such monstrous acts. Here’s a counter-thesis: Bored despots do unspeakable things.
If you can forgive Kean’s overly broad organizing principle (and hey, books don’t sell themselves), you’ll find a series of gripping stories about evil scientific deeds, corrupt rivalries and skulduggery — with real skulls. Kean is a gifted raconteur. When he writes about the antics of grave robbers who kept medical schools supplied with fresh cadavers, his detailed description of the techniques and tricks of the “sack-’em-up men” had me wincing and, it shames me a little to say, laughing.
Readers may already know many of the stories that Kean shares, including those about the Nazi experiments that led to the drafting of the Nuremberg Code and the infamous Tuskegee study that left Black men untreated for syphilis for decades. But he also presents less familiar tales and characters, like the American doctor in Guatemala who gave his subjects venereal diseases, or the Massachusetts forensics expert whose faked tests led to an untold number of wrongful convictions.
You are even less likely to be familiar with the story of Henry Smeathman, the 18th-century scientist who sailed to Sierra Leone to observe insects and send plant and animal specimens to his backers. Bit by bit, he was drawn into the slave trade. Kean ties his story to the taint of slavery in the work of many early scientists. There are probably specimens linked to slavery in “almost every natural history museum in any major European city,” he writes.
Kean tells the sad story of surgery fads like the lobotomy craze. And of sex assignment surgeries like the one that led to the tragic suicide of David Reimer, raised as a girl after a botched circumcision in infancy destroyed his penis and led doctors to surgically reassign his gender.
The book concludes with a vital point. Kean quotes Albert Einstein, who said: “Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: It is character.” Kean adds: “Without character, science is doomed, and unethical scientists all too often produce bad science.”
In an age when fake science undercuts the real thing in fields from virology to climate change, that’s a lesson for us all.