5 Huge Scientific Advances Created by Even Bigger Dick Moves
There's an unspoken understanding behind every medical breakthrough, be it organ transplants, complicated surgery, or disease-eradicating vaccines -- a whole lot of people had to die for us to figure that shit out. And while it's true that you can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs, there are a few pioneers of medical research that arguably smashed entire cartons more than necessary to arrive at their world-changing breakthroughs.
What do we mean by that? Well ...
Modern Dentistry Was Built on Torture
Nobody likes going to the dentist, except for Bill Murray in Little Shop of Horrors, so at one time or another we've probably all assumed the profession began as a dare between two pathological asylum orderlies. Of course, we don't really think that -- dentists are just medical professionals who have your best interests at heart, even if those best interests involve a terrifying drill.
"This hurts you a lot more than it hurts me."
Yeah, about that ...
In Sweden at the turn of the 20th century, some scientists were tasked with finding a solution to the country's crippling tooth-decay problem. The reason Sweden doesn't rate highly on your list of countries with discouraging oral hygiene is because they succeeded, but not without some questionable methods. You see, Sweden's top dental professionals trolled the local mental hospitals for research subjects to set up a 10-year study into the source of tooth decay, because back then "informed consent" wasn't extended to people with "brain fever" or "the gibbering babble-spooks." Crazy people were treated like training dummies for the medical community, among anything else a random person paid enough money to use them for (see "pathological asylum orderlies," above).
"Suppose I wanted to lash two or three together into a toboggan -- how much would that run me?"
The Swedish scientists had a suspicion that tooth decay was directly linked to sugar consumption, so to test this theory, they injected a massive amount of sugar into the diets of their completely unwilling and mentally deficient research subjects, to watch how it destroyed their teeth. The researchers fed their subjects candy and soda and even spiked their bread with sugar to speed up the rate at which their teeth rotted into gooey, black sponges dangling stinkily in their crazy heads.
The experiment continued for two years. There's no word on how many of the victims of this experiment developed serious long-term health problems (such as diabetes at the very least, not to mention the fact that tooth decay can lead to all sorts of other, more serious health problems), but after it ran its course they all had incredibly fucked-up teeth. It is also unclear whether any of them were allowed to select a prize from the toy bin once the research was concluded.
"Oooh, good choice; those will come in handy."
Despite the criminally unethical nature of the entire thing, the discovery of a definitive connection between sugar and tooth decay did create a dental health revolution in Sweden, and it helped form our current knowledge of oral hygiene in general. So, yes -- one of the largest building blocks of modern dentistry was literally made from torturing mental patients.
Child Psychology Was Developed by Tormenting Monkeys
Psychologist Harry Harlow had no love for animals, which is actually putting it mildly -- he went on record saying that he didn't care for monkeys, despised cats, and hated dogs. He expressed his dissatisfaction with the animal kingdom by subjecting his laboratory test beasts to brutally extreme methods, including such scientific tools as "rape racks" and "wells of despair" (please note that those terms are the ones used by Harlow himself to describe his own devices).
It's theorized that Harlow's unnecessarily horrific research techniques almost single-handedly gave rise to the animal liberation movement, so it's probably safe to assume that we didn't get anything useful out of this maniac, right? He was just some lunatic torturing animals for science because his mortgage and medical school student loan payments didn't allow him the financial freedom to become a full-blown serial killer.
The serial killer union doesn't even match your 401(k).
While that might be partially true, there was actually a point to Harlow's gruesome experiments -- his research was crucial in the development of modern child psychology.
In an effort to prove that parental love is more important to an infant human than basic needs like food and water, Harlow bred a bunch of test monkeys and isolated them from their biological parents. He then put them into cages with two rooms, one populated by a crude and terrifying effigy of a monkey mother constructed from wire mesh, which dispensed milk from one horrible eldritch nipple, and the other by a wooden mother, heated and draped in a soft cloth but with no milk to give.
"SUCKLE FROM MOTHER'S BREAST, MONKEY CHILD."
Harlow, mad with power and presumably wearing a tinfoil crown reading "King of the Monkeys," forced the subjects to live in these cages for months on end. What he discovered was that a majority of the young monkeys shunned the terrifying wire mother, despite its life-giving sustenance, in favor of the softer, more huggable wooden one, even if it meant that they starved.
Even though Harlow made his entire career out of essentially being Sid from Toy Story, this experiment proved to validate the most important psychological theories of the time -- that infants prioritize comfort and attachment over their physical needs (like nutrition). This information was considered by childcare boards around the globe and influenced how child welfare guidelines developed from then on. Specifically, it led to the idea that children were much better off being sent to a secure home environment with adopted parents instead of remaining in a state-run institution where only their basic needs were being met, which substantially improved childcare and the training of childcare professionals.
"SUCKLE FROM MOTHER'S BREAST, MONKEY CHILD."
It seems insane that it would take a sadistic monkey-torturing scientist to figure this out, but sometimes that's the way the world turns. Harlow really was trying to make a lasting contribution to the greater good. The fact that his research fell directly in line with his irrational hatred of animals was just a happy accident.
One Doctor Invented Cross-Species Transplantation on a Gamble
Cross-species transplantation -- literally transplanting a donor organ from an animal into a human being -- may very well be a solution to the worldwide organ shortage that leaves thousands of people unable to get treatment for their failing body parts every year. And we have made some advances in that direction -- heart surgery often uses valves and whatnot transplanted from pig or cow hearts, and almost none of the patients go on to become half-human, half-beast cartoon villains.
The problem standing in the way of a full organ transplant between species is that developing and perfecting the process would require human experimentation with a grotesquely high mortality rate, and few doctors want to be remembered as the person who killed 80 patients while trying to give them monkey kidneys ("They were dying anyway" is a defense that rarely softens the blow to your legacy).
However, Dr. Keith Reemtsma didn't give a fig about putting people's lives in serious danger for the sake of science. You see, Reemtsma was an enormously accomplished transplant surgeon who may also have been insane, and back in 1963 he happened to come into the care of 13 terminally ill patients all awaiting kidney donations in his hospital. Unfortunately, viable kidneys were extremely scarce and dialysis hadn't really been invented yet. Furthermore, in a hilarious stroke of cosmic irony, Reemtsma wasn't comfortable transplanting live human kidneys anyway, due to "ethical, scientific, and legal reasons." This is another way of saying that he might not have given these patients human kidneys even if he'd had any to spare.
"I have a dinner party tonight."
So Reemtsma did what any reasonable man of scientific action would have done -- he ordered a bunch of chimpanzee kidneys and had them implanted into the patients instead. If you're wondering where he was able to get two dozen chimpanzee kidneys on short notice, the answer is the circus and the space program, and no, that is not a joke. Monkeys who have outlived their usefulness as entertainers or astronauts can be executed with a phone call.
Shockingly, the surgery was a near-immediate tragedy for the majority of the patients, all of whom died within weeks of receiving their monkey organs due to infections from their bodies rejecting the alien tissue. But one 23-year-old teacher survived for nine months after her transplant, before dying from a catastrophic electrolyte imbalance (Gatorade had not yet been invented).
If only she had been born with a sports drink gland, like chimpanzees have.
Although nobody wound up living a long and fulfilling life after having chimp guts magicked into their bodies, Reemtsma's experiment did prove that interspecies transplants could be possible once medical technology caught up with his vision. If we ever reach a time when we're all walking around with ostrich eyes and crocodile livers, we can thank Dr. Reemtsma for being bold enough to suggest stealing innards from animals while harboring an inexplicable aversion for standard human-to-human organ transplants.
Modern Gynecology Was Developed by Practicing Surgery on Slaves
Gynecology is the science of lady parts, which is a definition we feel confident will soon be embraced by medical dictionaries around the world. The person most directly responsible for the field in its modern state is J. Marion Sims, a 19th century doctor who discovered treatments and techniques that are still used today. However, Sims was a wealthy white man living in the Antebellum South, which is another way of saying that he tested out his experimental techniques on the numerous slaves that he owned.
It really turned his diamond green, as they say.
Now, to be fair, there is some contention as to whether Sims' slaves were consenting participants, but the fact is that Sims developed and honed his techniques at home on slaves before using them on white women in an actual clinical setting, and he was only required to gain the consent of the slaves' owners (which, in some cases, meant he just had to have his own consent). He also didn't believe in using anesthetic, because he didn't feel that surgery to repair vaginal fistulas (ruptures in the vagina and/or anus that can occur during childbirth, leading to chronic pain and urinary problems) was painful enough to require it. That's right -- the "father of gynecology" didn't think that bloody vagina surgery hurt enough to necessitate the use of painkillers.
Some of Sims' patients were operated on more than 10 different times before Sims was happy with his technique (one particular slave woman was subjected to more than 30 operations -- again, all without anesthetic). Once they were finally stitched up, with the holes in their vaginal and/or anal canals closed off, they were free to experience their lives free of horrible, debilitating pain. At least until their sutures burst open or they suffered some other horrible, debilitating injury as a result of being tossed right back into a life of slave labor, because they were fucking slaves.
Coincidentally laying the groundwork for future HMOs.
So while it's true that Sims left a legacy of inventing gynecology, curing vesicovaginal fistulas, inventing gallbladder surgery, and massively influencing modern surgical procedure, and it's true that his slave test subjects, whether willing or unwilling, probably did need the surgery he was puzzling out on them, he was still a massive asshole, if for no other reason than he felt genital surgery wasn't good cause for pain-numbing drugs (when in point of fact it is the best cause), and that he tested surgery on slaves that he owned. You don't get to be remembered as a solid dude if that sentence is anywhere on your resume.
The Flu Vaccine Was Tested on Mental Patients
The discovery of vaccinations is one of the most important medical advances in human history. Unless you ask Rob Schneider, we suppose, but let's face it -- once you consult the star of Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo for his opinion on anything, you have pretty much given up on both yourself and the universe at large. Also, polio strongly disagrees with him, and polio makes a much more convincing argument.
"Nah, come here, we just wanna talk ..."
Anyway, the theory of vaccines was developed by researchers Jonas Salk and Thomas Francis Jr. We've already discussed how ballsy Salk was in his confidence that vaccination would be effective, to the extent that he tested it on himself, his wife, and their three children ("ballsy" and "unscrupulous" often overlap in the pages of medical history). But Salk's hubris didn't end there. During their work on a vaccination against the common flu, Salk and Francis needed case studies to prove that the flu jab was effective, but they had trouble finding volunteers willing to have a needle full of mystery science blasted into their veins before snorting a line of influenza. People back then just didn't know how to party, we guess.
So the researchers looked to the one group of people who can never say no, both legally and literally -- mental patients (see "dentistry," above). Starting in 1942, Salk and his partner began administering flu vaccines to mental patients in a Michigan asylum. And then, to prove that it worked, they deliberately infected those patients with the flu to show how miraculously unaffected they were (they had the patients "inhale" a fluid full of the virus to infect them). If being dosed by a virus so basic that you can't even call out of work when you catch it seems like a pretty small price to pay for science, we should remind you that the flu actually kills upwards of tens of thousands of people per year, so it isn't exactly like Salk was going around the mental ward giving people noogies. Also, you know, there's the whole "using human beings as unwilling guinea pigs" thing.
"But I was right, thus absolving me of responsibility forever."
Nevertheless, the campaign worked to sway people in vaccination's favor. And, as far as history and medical science are concerned, Salk and Francis have sterling reputations, except for this one time they decided to be supervillains. We suppose there's an important lesson to be learned there, but we're not sure we want to learn it.
For more questionable methods by smart people, check out The 10 Craziest Scientific Experiments Ever Conducted and The 6 Biggest Dick Moves in the History of Science.
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