The 6 Cruelest Science Experiments Ever (Were Done on Kids)

#3. Tempting Babies to Crawl Off a Cliff

Gynomite

Once babies reach crawling age, they tend to not crawl straight off the edge of things when the fall is great enough to result in potential injury. But why is that? How do they know what a fatal drop is if they've never experienced one? Clearly the only way to study the phenomenon was to observe some infants as they encountered a remorseless abyss, then try to convince them to crawl off of it.

Scribd
"Indiana Jones did it, do you want him to think you're a pussy?"

And so, in 1960, two psychologists at Cornell University named Eleanor J. Gibson and Richard D. Walk proceeded to build what they dubbed the "visual cliff" -- a contraption made up of boards laid across a heavy sheet of glass. When some patterned fabric was added, the resulting effect was that the transition from boards to bare glass looked like a sheer drop straight to the floor below. Well, that's not so bad -- there was no real danger to the babies, right?

Well, not physical danger, anyway. One at a time, they plopped a bunch of babies on the "cliff" and had their mothers try to coax them across the glass. In other words, they had the mothers tell their own babies to do something that the babies believed was certain death, and the babies then had to choose between obedience and their own self-preservation.

Getty
You may remember that this is exactly how Gollum went crazy the second time.

They tested 36 infants ranging from 6 to 14 months old (you can see the video here), and of those 36, only three crept over the "cliff" and onto the glass (those three presumably did not grow up to become scientists themselves). Most of them crawled away from their mothers, presumably instilling a mistrust that plagued them for the rest of their lives. Others cried, probably because they lacked the language to fill the air with confused, wounded obscenities.

However, Gibson and Walk did notice that several of the infants who didn't cross onto the glass still got close enough to the edge to fall, had the drop been real. This led them to the following conclusion: "Evidently infants should not be left close to a brink, no matter how well they may discriminate depth." So, babies should be kept away from long drops. Thanks, science!

#2. Using Orphans as Practice Babies

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Back in the days when young women were only expected to go to school to learn how to roast a chicken in between pregnancies, domestic economy (or home economics) was a thriving program at institutions like Cornell, the University of Minnesota and Eastern Illinois State. And these institutions figured that there was no better way to test out the latest child-rearing theories of the day than on actual living babies.

ABC News
"Whoops, this one's dead, too. Betty, can you grab a few more from the cabinet?"

Starting around 1920, these colleges and others "borrowed" hundreds of babies from orphanages for young female students to practice on. The babies stayed in practice apartments, where they were cared for by revolving groups of eight to 12 female students, a process we are convinced would lead a developing infant to believe that its mother was a shape-shifting demon.

library.cornell.edu
Peek-a-boo is a lot more disturbing when the face keeps changing.

The babies' real identities were kept secret, so the girls took to giving them names like Denny Domecon (for domestic economy), as detailed in this Cornell publication that literally contains the sentence "Each of Cornell's two practice apartments is equipped with a real baby." After a year or two of serving as the doll in this real-life dollhouse, the babies would go on to homes in adoptive families, presumably frustrated over downgrading to just a personal assistant after having an entire staff.

In their defense, the Illinois State Child Welfare Division tried to shut down Eastern Illinois State's practice-babies program in the mid-1950s to protect a child known as "David North," who at the time was being raised by 12 different student mothers. Ultimately it was decided that the state had no jurisdiction, since David's real mother had given consent, and programs like this continued on up until the 1960s, when people finally realized that the only practice baby you should really get is your own.

castle.eiu.edu
"Hey, what did we agree on? No more mulligan babies!"

#1. Turning a Ruined Penis into a Lifelong Experiment

The Society Pages

David Reimer was born in Winnipeg in 1965, one of a set of identical twin boys. When David was 8 months old, his parents took him to the doctor to get circumcised. Unfortunately, rather than using a scalpel like a medical professional, the doctor decided to use an electrocautery needle, presumably because one of his nightmares dared him to. If you're not familiar with that device or what it does, let us just put it like this: During the procedure, the doctor accidentally burned off David's entire penis.

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"... on the plus side, he'll save a fortune on condoms!"

Understandably distraught, David's parents went to psychologist Dr. John Money, an expert in the field of sexual identity studies, for advice. Dr. Money made the radical recommendation of performing a sex change operation and raising David as a girl.

David's parents accepted his advice, truly wanting to do what was best in the wake of their son's tragedy and give him the best life they could. However, Dr. Money wasn't terribly interested in David's quality of life ("wasn't terribly interested" is a phrase that here means "He didn't give one volcanic shit"). Dr. Money suggested the sex change because he saw the situation as the perfect opportunity to perform the ultimate experiment to "prove that nurture, not nature, determines gender identity and sexual orientation." And the fact that David had a twin brother to use as a control group was just the icing on the douchecake.

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"Quit letting her play with dolls, she's tainting my data!"

The problem was, David never accepted his role as "Brenda." She rebelled against wearing dresses and preferred her brother's toy cars and guns to her own dolls (to be fair, many girls do, because cars and guns are badass). She was relentlessly teased at school for talking and acting like a boy. Brenda/David's (Brendavid's?) parents went to Dr. Money for help, but he insisted that the child was just "going through a phase," and that everything would be totally fine. Meanwhile, Money was continuously publishing papers about the experiment and labeling it a complete success, which suggests that at no point in medical school was he called on to open a dictionary to the "S" section.

But Money mysteriously stopped publishing glowing reports on his experiment in the late '70s -- right around the time David found out the truth about his penis being melted off by a space wand. A few decades quietly passed, and then in 1997 the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine released a detailed follow-up on Dr. Money's experiments, illustrating the catastrophic damage he had caused to poor, tragic David and creating a media uproar criticizing his actions.

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"Oh sure, blame the guy who didn't melt his penis off!"

Money was reportedly "mortified" by the case and refused to talk about it, although whether he was more upset over David's ultimate suicide or the failure of his own hubris is debatable.

For more terrifying things science has done, check out 9 Real Life Mad Scientists and The 5 Weirdest Drug Experiments Performed on Animals.

If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out The Singing Android That Will Ruin Robots for You.

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