Oopsenheimers: 5 Other Scientists With Blood on Their Hands
Oppenheimer seems to have entered the summer as the living irony of a movie about a bomb that’s anything but. It’s historical enough to make it feel like a movie that is Very Smart and Thoughtful, but it still has at least one big explosion to activate our lizard brain. It’s also a fun look at when the academic, bookish study of physics suddenly spills over into violence.
Of course, this isn’t the first time a test-tube jockey has ended up with a kill count that would make Chris Kyle blush. Scientists through the ages have developed plenty of technology that, whether they planned for it or not, ended up used in the great human tradition of murder. Sure, not many of them can hold a candle to the scale of J. Robert Oppenheimer, but in terms of pure ick factor, there are a few second-place contenders.
Here are five scientists who, like Oppenheimer, ended up with plenty of blood on their hands.
You’re going to find a common thread here, which is that most of these scientists weren’t pure murder-makers. A lot of the time, they are also credited with discoveries that have kept people alive, whether pursued out of guilt or just pure happenstance and curiosity. The chemist Louis Fieser has a couple helpful compounds under his belt, like blood-clotting agent vitamin K and cortisone, which is probably floating around your dad’s arthritic knees as we speak.
It’s something else that hangs over his head a little more unpleasantly, however. Fieser is also sometimes called “the father of napalm.” Most famously used in Vietnam, it was an answer to some psychopath’s complaint that when people caught on fire, they were too easy to put out. Napalm is fuel mixed with gelling agents, forming an incendiary substance that sticks to targets, whether architectural or human and screaming.
It’s a highly controversial weapon, in that most countries find it abhorrent and cruel, and the U.S. was still using it in Iraq in the aughts. Fieser isn’t full “I am become death” about it, though. He does say he was “outraged” to find it was being used on people, as he thought it was only going to be used on buildings. Which makes sense, if you think a Harvard chemist isn’t aware of what lives in buildings.
Again, with German chemist Fritz Haber, let’s look at the good before we look at the very, very bad. Haber is credited with figuring out how to synthesize ammonia from hydrogen and nitrogen. This, combined with the work of Carl Bosch, led to the Haber-Bosch Process, which skyrocketed the world’s ability to produce crops through more effective, mass-produced fertilizers. It, in fact, landed him a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1918.
Usually, if you put a dent in literal world hunger, you’d think you’d be one of history’s all-time good guys. One of his other projects, though, was the exact opposite. Haber also developed chemical weapons (yikes) for the Nazis (double yikes). Most notably, his research led to the development of Zyklon B, the gas infamously used to exterminate groups of Jews in Nazi concentration camp showers. This was despite the fact that Haber was Jewish himself. I think we can all agree: what a fucking putz.
Yes, that Alfred Nobel. The Peace Prize one. I know, it’s a bit confusing. The fact is, that the entire establishment of the Nobel Prize was a bit of a mea culpa by Nobel himself from guilt over his development of dynamite. Sure, a couple blasting caps might look like small potatoes once Oppenheimer took out a good bit of Japan, but at the time, he was wracked with guilt.
When his brother, Ludvig Nobel, died, a French newspaper got the two mixed up and published a pre-mortem obituary of Alfred that called him a “merchant of death.” When he saw himself saddled with such a decidedly evil job description, he decided to change his legacy. He dedicated his fortune to establishing the Nobel Prizes, hoping that he could undo inventing the best way to blow people up. I have to think he’d be pretty happy with the results.
Unlike the earlier entries, the scientist Thomas Midgley’s inventions weren’t ever tied directly to violence. It wasn’t an intent to harm but instead a lack of critical knowledge that puts him squarely in the historical doghouse. If you research him, you’re likely going to find some incredibly unglowing reviews of his work that call him things like “The Most Harmful Inventor in History.”
So what did this all-time champions of “oops” invent? Bullets? Cigarettes? Modern health insurance? No, Midgley was the mind behind two separate innovations that would be high on the list of things we’d ask time travelers to scrub from the past. First was leaded gasoline, which researchers have found lowered the average IQ of the entire American population by two to three points. His other invention was CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, meaning that he’s at least partly responsible for global warming.
Most people want to be remembered fondly after their death, but I’d at least settle for the New York Times never saying, “There may be no other single person in history who did as much damage to human health and the planet.”
Our last entry is probably one of the most commonly miscredited, something the person in question was known to hate. As you might have guessed from the name, we’re talking about the guillotine. Despite what your local know-it-all might have told you, Guillotin wasn’t the inventor, nor a victim, of the slicey device in question. In fact, he was a staunch opponent of the death penalty.
Guillotin realized he probably wasn’t going to stop heads from rolling anytime soon. Instead, he suggested that execution be made more humane, not a big ask when people were still subject to the strength and accuracy of a human executioner. He developed a prototype with the help of a doctor and a harpsichord maker, and it worked so well they decided to name it after him, something he responded to with the French equivalent of “the hell you are!”
Unfortunately for him, the name stuck, despite spending his entire life trying to shake the connection. Even after his death, his family attempted to get the government to change the guillotine’s name, but eventually just ended up changing theirs instead.