Some of History’s Most Disturbing Science Experiments

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The strength of science has changed history generation to generation as experiments birth new best practices in medicine, technology and beyond. Science is an intellectual and practical activity that encompasses the systematic study of structure and behavior through observation and experiments. Whether improving our quality of life with vaccines or changing a persons eye color for vanity, science it amazing.

What’s less discussed are the moments in science where experiments took bizarre, disturbing and inhumane turns in the name of discovery.

On a Friday in August 1962 three Oklahoma City scientist injected an elephant named Tusko with a dose of LSD containing 297 milligrams. The dose was 3,000 times the level of a typical human dose. The extremely high dose was likely a result of elephants traditional resistants to drugs.

The researchers were experimenting whether or not the LSD, which is a psychoactive drug would induce musth. Musth is a state of temporary madness male elephants experience. During Musth the elephants are highly aggressive and secrete a sticky substance from their temporal glands.

The experiment almost immediately went disturbingly bad. The scientist recount Tusko receiving the shot of LSD as if a bee had stung him. Only minutes later Tusko keeled over on his side. After attempts to revive Tusko with antipsychotics the elephant died.

Drugs kill Tusko

What happens in science when ethics are non-existent? In the summer of 1954 a social psychologist named Muzafer Sherif set out to learn if two groups of children were stuck in the woods, would they learn to hate each other?

Thus the Robbers Cave Experiment began. A group of 11 middle class 11-year-olds headed to summer camp at Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. With promises of hiking, fishing and swimming the boys knew not of their parents consent for them to participate in Sherif’s experiment.

During week one, two groups were sent out into the woods separate from one another. The groups were kept apart while team-building exercises were conducted. They then established their own hierarchy, elected leaders, named their teams and created team flags— the Eagles and the Rattlers.

Later, the two groups conveniently “discovered” each other and were encouraged to play tug-of-war. To say the least the game ended with the Eagles burning the Rattlers’ flag after being defeated at tug-of-war. As tournaments went on the adults found themselves breaking up fistfights, mid-night ransacks and food fights.

Sherif has successfully and unethically transformed 22 ordinary 11-year-old boys with no prior behavioral problems into a mob of aggressive savages at “summer camp,” in less than three weeks.

Robbers Cave Experiment

From 1932 until 1972 there was a government-funded study conducted strictly on African America patients. Nearly 400 patients were knowingly denied treatment for syphilis in rural Alabama in the Tuskegee experiment.

The study was done even after penicillin was found to be effective against the disease in 1947. The patients were also not told they had syphilis as doctors blamed their “bad blood” giving them placebo medicine and unnecessary spinal taps.

The alleged goal of the experiment, which was carried out by the U.S. Public Health Service was done in order to study the prolonged progress of syphilis when left untreated. There were countless deaths as a result of the patients prolonged syphilis while even more died from related complications.

Years later, former president Bill Clinton apologized on behalf of the nation and the Public Health Service eventually paid $9 million to their victims.

Tuskegee Syphilis Study

In Maryland from 1955 to 1975 between 5,000 and 7,000 men joined a program called Edgewood. They voluntarily signed consent forms, but had no idea what kind of experiments they were about to undergo.

The Edgewood Arsenal, US Army facility near Chesapeake Bay served as home to thousands of guinea pigs. A few lucky volunteers were given caffeine, but most of the men were not so lucky. Some were sprayed with LSD, other given PCP, barbiturates and even BZ, which causes agitation and hallucinations.

The men were then observed in fictitious war scenarios as scientist watched on cameras. In addition some volunteers were hit with deadly toxins like mustard gas, sarin and VX. Many died and some suffered long after the experiment was done, including diseases like Parkinson’s.

Testing at Edgewood Arsenal

In 1971 it was widely believed amongst the medical community that homosexuality was a mental illness, which could be cured. Thus the Aversion Project was instituted in South Africa and lasted until 1989.

The policy of medical torture was carried out under apartheid and included forced treatments like electric shocks and chemical castration. The army authorized nearly 1,000 forced sex change operations as well.

The man in charge, chief psychiatrist of the South African military Dr. Aubrey Levin was a eventually accused of human rights abuse by the international organization and received a prison sentence.

The Aversion Project

An elephant named Topsy was electrocuted until its death at Luna Park Zoo on Coney Island on January, 4th in 1903. The whole event was caught on tape by Thomas Edison in an attempt to discredit alternating current in electricity.

The event was highly publicized in order to demonstrate the dangers of alternating current. Thomas Edison had established direct current as the standard for electricity distribution and was able to live lavishly on the patent royalties. The true threat was George Westinghouse and Nicola Tesla who showed up with alternating current instead of Edison's direct current.

Edison’s attempt to discredit alternating current ended with the electrocution of a cranky female elephant who had squashed three handlers in three years including a man who tried to feed her a lit cigarette. Park officials considered hanging Topsy, but the SPCA objected on humanitarian grounds and let Edison electrocute Topsy instead.

Topsy the elephant