6 Terrifying Experiments Parents Did on Their Own Kids
Given all the complaining people do about animal experimentation these days, it's easy to forget that up until fairly recently, scientific experimentation on humans was considered perfectly acceptable. While most of our scientific forefathers stuck to experimenting on random poor people like any respectable person would, others took it a step further and said, "Well, this baby in my house is already crying a lot anyway ..."
The Psychologist Who Tests the Tickling Response on His Son While Dressed Up as a Nightmare
In 1933, psychologist Clarence Leuba wanted to figure out whether laughing when being tickled is an instinct we're born with or if we just learn it from watching other people do it. It seems like a fine plan, but that's when he took it to crazytown. See, he figured that the best opportunity to crack the tickle matrix was to experiment on his infant son. While wearing a terrifying mask.
In the interests of science, Leuba first banned all tickling in his household, allowing it only during special, experimental tickling periods. What's more, he explicitly banned his wife from ever laughing while she touched the kid so that he would never hear the sound of laughter and accidentally associate it with tickling. Because, you know, this question is totally important enough to sacrifice someone's childhood to answer it.
Where It Gets Weirder:
But the most terrifying aspect of this experiment was the tickling itself. To make really sure his child would not be influenced by his facial expressions, Leuba wore a large, blank cardboard mask with only narrow eye slits, and in an effort to win the award for "creepiest child-parent interaction that doesn't involve any form of taxidermy," Leuba carefully conducted "controlled tickling" on various predetermined areas of his child's body, starting with the armpit.
Shockingly, the kid did start laughing (we sure as hell wouldn't have), but according to Leuba, the validity of the test had been ruined by his wife, who confessed one day that she had laughed while bouncing her son on her knee and saying "Bouncy, bouncy!" Exactly how Leuba reacted to this confession is not known, but we assume it had something to do with stabbing her while wearing a clown costume.
Nevertheless, Leuba realized how insane this whole thing was, and they all had a good laugh about it afterward. No, wait. Actually, Leuba just started the experiment over again with his second child.
The Man Who Invented Vaccines by Giving His Son Smallpox
In the late 18th century, English physician Edward Jenner was trying to prove his new insane theory: that deliberately infecting people with a non-serious bovine disease called cowpox would give them immunity to smallpox, a disfiguring and potentially fatal disease that over the centuries has been known as "the red death," "the speckled monster" and "proof that nature hates us all."
We now know that Jenner was right -- he called it vaccination -- but at the time, his theory was based on the observation that people who worked with cows a lot didn't tend to get smallpox as often.
Understandably, the scientific establishment wasn't convinced by this not-quite-ironclad research, so Jenner decided to do the obvious thing and deliberately infect his infant son, Edward Jr., with both diseases. The touching moment in science history when Jenner did this has for some reason been repeatedly captured in sculpture:
Where It Gets Weirder:
Inoculating people in those days wasn't as simple as a prick in the arm. What Jenner actually had to do was cut his son's arm open, take a pile of infected pus and shove it right in there, like stuffing the world's most horrifying Thanksgiving turkey.
Jenner didn't just cram diseased pus into his son, but did the same to several young boys in the neighborhood, just to be sure. Of course, if he'd been wrong and all those boys had contracted smallpox, Jenner probably wouldn't be known as a hero to the medical establishment, but would instead have some notorious serial killer name like "The London Pus Monster."
The Royal Society apparently weighed out "This guy is cutting people open and putting in cow sickness" and "Hey, he tried it on his own son" and came down on Jenner's side. Although vaccination took a while to catch on fully, it eventually got big, to the extent that smallpox is now a hipster disease that no one's really heard of.
The Guy Who Stung His Son With a Deadly Jellyfish (to See if It Was Deadly)
In 1964, an Australian marine toxicologist named Jack Barnes was investigating the jellyfish he thought might be responsible for producing "Irukandji syndrome," a collection of mysterious, hospitalizing symptoms that was popping up in some Australian swimmers.
Barnes eventually found a sample of the tiny jellyfish that he suspected might be to blame on a Queensland beach, but he needed to test that it was actually poisonous and not some pansy nonpoisonous jellyfish that wasn't worthy of its Australian status. So he tested the jellyfish's sting on three people: himself, a local lifeguard ... and his 9-year-old son, Nick.
Where It Gets Weirder:
Irukandji syndrome has been described by its victims as a pain worse than childbirth, excruciating to the point where sufferers often beg to die. Nevertheless, Barnes apparently agreed to sting his son because the 9-year-old asked if he could try it. Presumably, he would also have hit his son in the face with a brick if the boy had decided to give that a try, too.
As should have been completely expected, everyone wound up in the hospital 20 minutes later, writhing in agonizing convulsions, because that is what Irukandji syndrome does. And as the brick house of a lifeguard was put down by the experience, the unsuspecting child didn't have much of a chance.
Luckily, all of the "test subjects" recovered just fine, but young Nick admitted later that he too had felt the desire to die during the ordeal. The experience was probably useful for bringing up later when his dad wouldn't loan him the car.
The Man Who Imprisoned His Son to Teach Him a Dead Language
In 1881, Lithuanian-born Jew Eliezer Ben-Yehuda emigrated to Palestine and realized that all the other immigrant Jews were speaking a bunch of foreign languages he couldn't understand, which made it really difficult to organize a bris. He figured that Jews should be speaking in a common, unifying language, and they actually had one available -- Hebrew -- but it hadn't been spoken as a native language since around the third century B.C.
So Ben-Yehuda decided that his son, Ittamar, would have the privilege of being the first native Hebrew speaker in a few thousand years. It was going to be tricky -- Old Testament Hebrew didn't have words for things like steam trains, so Ben-Yehuda had to straight invent large portions of the language so that he'd be able to teach his son about anything that had happened since around the beginning of the Roman Empire. And yeah, that actually seems more awesome than bizarre, and when you consider that there's a guy in Minnesota who tried to teach his son Klingon, you'd think this kid got off lucky. However ...
Where It Gets Weirder:
When Ben-Yehuda said that his son was going to learn pure Hebrew, he really meant it. And since he and his dad were the only people who actually spoke Hebrew in conversation, Ittamar wasn't allowed to speak to or be spoken to by another human being, ever. When family friends came around to the house, Ittamar was sent to bed, lest he accidentally hear a non-Hebrew word and ruin everything.
When Ben-Yehuda caught his wife singing to the child in Russian, he flew into a rage and ended up breaking a table (we presume that during this incident the child learned the Hebrew phrase for "your mother is a lying whore"). Ben-Yehuda even forbade his son from listening to the noises made by animals, possibly because he figured that the local donkeys were all braying a donkey version of Palestinian Arabic in an effort to undermine all his work.
But rather than treating Ben-Yehuda as a crazy person who feared animal language conspiracies, the Jewish community backed his efforts and began teaching Hebrew to their own kids, and today, Hebrew is an official language of Israel, although they probably also know what dogs and cats sound like.
Charles Darwin's Zoological Study (of His Son)
You know about Charles Darwin's work with animals, but what you may not know is that he had some trouble switching off at home. So when the cycle of life brought Darwin a son, William, he raised that boy the only way he knew how: like a biologist.
Darwin spent the first couple of years of his son's life taking copious notes on the baby's behavior. Not so that he could publish anything -- the article in which his findings appear wasn't published until 37 years later, as an afterthought. He just did that shit out of pure habit.
Where It Gets Weirder:
But Darwin didn't just watch and learn; he took the initiative to put the growing infant through an increasingly bizarre series of behavioral experiments, like shaking various objects in front of his face to test his reactions, and bringing the boy to a zoo to find out which animals frightened him and revealed fears inherited from "ancient savage" times.
In one experiment, Darwin tested his son's reaction to tits (possibly a test of his manhood), but was disappointed that "he perceived his mother's bosom when three or four inches from it, as was shown by the protrusion of his lips and his eyes becoming fixed; but I much doubt whether this had any connection with vision; he certainly had not touched the bosom."
As if this wasn't weird enough, William is occasionally referred to as "it" throughout Darwin's notes. Then again, given how people used to dress boys back then, maybe he just forgot.
The Psychologist Who Raises a Chimpanzee as a Sibling to His Own Child
Back in the 1930s, scientists still weren't clear on what parts of human intelligence and behavior were innate, and which were just caused by upbringing. It was even theorized that some of the more intelligent animals, like chimpanzees, lack human speech, behavior and morals only because no one had ever read to them as children.
But how the hell do you test this theory? Luckily, a psychologist named Winthrop Kellogg remembered that it was the 1930s and that he was batshit insane, so he decided to take home a young chimpanzee named Gua and raise it next to his infant son Donald, raising them identically, just to see what would happen.
Where It Gets Weirder:
Winthrop also developed an extensive testing system in which Donald and Gua were pitted against each other daily in an epic battle of baby vs. chimp (when we do this, people tell us it's illegal). Kellogg tested things like dexterity, memory, language development, obedience and the age-old question of what happens when you tie a baby to a chair and spin it around really fast.
Unfortunately, Kellogg failed to produce the expected chimp man in a top hat and monocle. Gua basically remained a chimpanzee. But the experiment had unforeseen side effects for Donald, who actually started acting like a chimp -- the experiment had to be abandoned when Donald wouldn't stop running around biting people.
So next time you're judging people on Facebook for putting up pictures of their poop-covered children using the "public" setting, remember for a minute the small child who nearly 100 years later still has videos up on YouTube of his parents firing guns next to his head to see what happens.
C. Coville's Twitter is here.
For more frightening experiments, check out 9 Real Life Mad Scientists and The 6 Cruelest Science Experiments Ever (Were Done on Kids).
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out The 6 Stupidest Things You Can Pay People to Do for You.