Wedit Freeman was itching for a short cut. Since the 1930s, the Washington, DC neurologist had hollowed out the skulls of psychiatric patients to extract pieces of brains in hopes of calming their mental torment. But Freeman decided he wanted something simpler than a bone drill – he wanted a rod-shaped tool that could pass directly through the eye socket to enter the brain. He then twisted the rod to scramble the patient’s frontal lobes, the regions of the brain that control higher-level thinking and judgment.
Rummaging through his kitchen drawer, Freeman found the perfect tool: a sharp pickax of the kind used to shear ice from large blocks. He knew his close colleague, surgeon James Watts, would not sanction his new approach, so he closed the office door and did his “ice pick lobotomies” – more formally, transorbital lobotomies – unbeknownst to him. by Watts.
While the amoral scientist has been a familiar trope since Victor Frankenstein, we rarely consider what puts these techies on the path to iniquity. “Icepick’s Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Hacking, and Other Dastardly Acts in the Name of Science” by journalist Sam Kean helps fill this void, describing how dozens of promising scientists went bankrupt throughout the world. ‘story – and claiming that the better we understand their moral decay, the more ready we will be to crush the next Freeman. “Understanding what good and bad looks like in science – and the path from one to the other – is more vital than ever,” Kean writes. “Science must answer for its own sins. ”
Expert in historical science shadows – his latest book, “The Bastard Brigade,” was about the failed Nazi atomic bomb – Kean presents an entertaining and frightening gallery of scientific thugs. Naturalist William Dampier, who influenced the work of Charles Darwin, resorted to piracy to finance his fieldwork in the 17th century. He joined a band of buccaneers who seized precious stones, precious silks and stocks of perfume during raids through Central and South America.
A century later, famous Scottish surgeon John Hunter worked with grave robbers to obtain bodies so he could study human anatomy. His colleagues mimicked his approach, and the pipeline from corpse thieves to anatomists continued for decades. The practice was tacitly accepted because it could provide valuable information – Hunter discovered tear ducts and the olfactory nerve, among others – but the human toll was horrific nonetheless. During public hangings, the so-called ransacked men “sometimes even pulled people who were not yet quite dead from the gallows,” Kean writes. “They had just passed out from lack of air – only to wake up later on the dissection table.”
In a way, however, the horrific endpoints described by Kean – the scrambled brains, the wrecked ships, the death beds – are the least interesting part of its story. They mainly confirm the impression of the philosopher Simone Weil according to which the evil of the real world is “dark, monotonous, sterile, boring”.
What is more compelling is Kean’s take on how scientists justified their actions. They brushed aside thoughts of collateral damage – the lives they disrespected and damaged – by rationalizing that their contributions outweighed any harm they did. Freeman’s work in an early 20th-century mental asylum convinced him of the unmistakable benefit of calming lobotomy patients. “The room could be lit when the curtains and flowerpots were no longer in danger of being used as weapons,” Freeman observed.
“Understanding what good and bad looks like in science – and the path from one to the other – is more vital than ever,” Kean writes.
But it wasn’t long before the downsides of Freeman’s blind strategy manifested themselves. Botched lobotomies killed some patients, while others, like John F. Kennedy’s sister, Rosemary Kennedy, became unable to speak normally or take care of themselves.
Kean excels at translating every scientist’s slide into corruption – a slide so gradual that, like the legendary boiling frog, they barely noticed they were in hot water. Freeman was once a prodigy neurology professor beloved by his students. At one point he opened a book by Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz and got religion. Moniz claimed that excising brain tissue helped terminally ill patients recover sufficiently to leave asylums, and Freeman felt inspired to help his own critically ill patients in the same way. At first, it seemed like a reasonable last resort approach. During Moniz’s heyday in the mid-century, lobotomies became an accepted part of medical practice in asylums, and Moniz even won the Nobel Prize in 1949 for his advances in psychosurgery.
But then Freeman started doing more and more lobotomies, with fewer ethical doubts. He increasingly used the raw ice pick to probe patients’ brains, rather than Moniz’s more traditional surgical tools. And he began to offer surgery to adult patients with less severe mental illnesses and, finally, to young children with mood disorders. Why not operate as soon as possible, he argued, before things have a chance to get out of hand?
English naturalist Henry Smeathman also started with the highest intentions – he was a staunch opponent of the slave trade. But years later, on a solitary assignment in Sierra Leone, he landed it with captains of slave ships in his spare time, then enlisted himself as a slave trade agent. His reason of being ? By putting on his oar, he could ensure that his field specimens had a quick passage on slave ships from Africa to England. “Preserving dead insects and plants meant more to him than preserving his morality,” Kean notes.
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Kean’s catalog of scientific scoundrels has notable gaps. While he briefly mentions Nazi doctors and their horrific experiments with concentration camp prisoners, he skips entirely to early 20th-century American eugenics, a branch of pseudoscience concerned with preserving “good” human lineages and to reject the “unfit”. The founders of this movement, including researcher Francis Galton, in many ways paved the way for the genocidal crimes of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen.
Yet Kean makes up for his omissions, at least in part, with the complexity of the portraits he includes. We discover Smeathman’s respect for the natural history knowledge of his Sierra Leonean guides and the care with which Freeman followed each of his patients to document their progress. Many unscrupulous scientists, Kean reveals, are much more like us than not. While it’s heartwarming to think of them as aliens, we have many of the same human tendencies as them – and, like them, we struggle to detect when the drip of moral compromise turns into a flood. .
“Any of us may have fallen into similar traps,” Kean writes. “To honestly admit that this is the best vigilance we have.”
To avoid such pitfalls, Kean advises scientists to adopt clear ethical guidelines before launching any project, based on research showing that people behave more ethically when they assert their honesty at the start of a task. He also argues for a technique developed by psychologist Gary Klein and championed by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman called the premortem – in-depth assessments of all the ways a planned research endeavor could go wrong. But the book stops before the specific political implications on this point; there is no analysis of how scientific premortems might work to prevent future heinous acts.
Moreover, some scientists are already so far in the quagmire that premortems are out of the question. It’s only fitting that Freeman’s last surgery, a lobotomy in early 1967, ended in disaster. He failed to aim his pickaxe properly and the patient suffered a brain hemorrhage and died. No doctor in the United States has performed such a procedure since – at least, as far as the medical records show. It may be true that, thanks to Freeman’s surgeries, some patients have left asylums and returned to their families. But decades later, what is remembered most are the lives destroyed by the ice pick.