A new book explores the forgotten scientists who injected themselves with minced testicles, gave electric shocks to servants suspended in mid-air and analysed in detail the process of putting on their socks.
Sam Cooley, a research fellow in sports psychology at the University of Birmingham, became fascinated by research methodology and “the books on weird and wonderful scientific experiments” during his PhD. Yet most of these focused on “the funniest or most extreme aspects of an experiment without always painting a full picture of what went on”.
He therefore decided to track down the original articles, scour ageing journals for further oddities and bring them all together in a book called The Museum of Bizarre and Extreme Science: A Collection of the Most Outlandish Experiments in History.
There was one researcher, he reports, who studied facial responses to “emotionally charged situations” by getting participants to witness events such as the decapitation of live rats. Another hoped to illuminate the transmission of yellow fever by locking up his subjects in an infected cabin for three weeks, “with limited sunlight and little to do but lay around in excrement, blood and vomit”. A third, less controversially, looked into thermoregulation by publishing “the most detailed account ever of a group of friends sitting in a sauna”.
Philosophical Transactions, first published by the Royal Society of London in 1665, featured research by luminaries such as Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin.
Yet in 1759 it also gave space to an article by a Scottish researcher called Robert Symmer. He was fascinated by the phenomenon of static electricity, Dr Cooley’s book says, and decided to investigate, “armed with his finely tuned scientific apparatus (ie, his socks) and a tightly controlled experimental protocol (ie, taking his socks on and off)”.
Never a man in a hurry – it took him 16 years to complete his degree – he “conduct[ed] no fewer than four separate experiments over the course of many months”, featuring “different techniques of removal”, “different weather conditions” and even “different coloured socks”.
Dr Cooley’s gallery of mad scientists and their madder research features many experiments “published between the mid-18th and early 20th century”, before a notable improvement in ethical standards. He hopes it will prove “a useful teaching resource”, amusing students while generating debate about ethical and methodical issues that might otherwise seem dull.
The book also tracks the strange path of scientific progress. In the mid-1880s, a researcher called Charles-Edouard Brown-Séquard was happy to try and improve his health by merely self-injecting the mashed-up testicles of dogs and guinea pigs. Fifteen years later, doctors in Chicago were performing complete testicular transplants.
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