The doctor who infected a child. The mathematician who founded a cult. The psychologist who breached the boundaries of morality. The mad inventor with myths tied to his name and another who lost his sanity fighting the establishment. Let’s get to know some of the scientists who did not follow the crowds.
Science is first and foremost a method - a meticulous way to expose reality layer by layer while formulatng, testing and modifying hypotheses. Every scientist will tell you that the bulk of their time is dedicated to hard work and that even that romantic spark of free, wild, groundbreaking thinking one imagines while thinking about science are based upon methodical work of many generations of researchers and on many long days of trial and error in the laboratory, at the computer or on a sheet of paper.
Nevertheless, the popular image of science is different. We often think of a scientist as a rather eccentric, disorganized, brilliant and half-crazy person. We encounter these mad scientists again and again in popular culture - in the monster that Victor Frankinstein built from parts of cadavres, in Doc Brown’s time machine in “Back to the Future” (pictured above, taken from Wikipedia) and in Dr. Strangelove’s doomsday machine and even in the famous photo of Albert Einstein with his wild hair, sticking out his tongue at the camera. That’s how we like our scientists - misunderstood and unrestrained geniuses.
However, the mad scientist is not merely an image. In the history of science there were many examples of people who embodied this model - groundbreaking and unrestrained. People who in the name of the quest for knowledge disregarded morality, society and even self-preservation and refused to toe the line. Some were highly determined and even performed experiments on themselves, others did not fit the existing framework and even lost their sanity while fighting for the truth. Here we will get to know a few of them - people whose spark of madness has driven them to change the world.
Deliberate Infection of a Child - Edward Jenner
The Smallpox virus killed hundreds of millions of people, left many of its survivors scarred and disabled and was rightfully known as the “Angel of Death''. These days we are unfamiliar with it, and it has become the first and only disease so far that humanity has managed to eradicate completely. This was made possible thanks to one rural English doctor, brilliant but lacking in ethics, named Edward Jenner - a man who, using draconian methods, managed to develop a vaccine against the most extensive mass murderer in history, perhaps apart from the “Black Death”.
Jenner had a brilliant idea. He noticed that cattle breeders who were infected with the disease suffered only very minor symptoms and recovered almost immediately. He gradually realized that, as a result of their constant contact with sick farm animals, they were in fact infected with a similar but slightly different disease - Cowpox. Then came his great idea - if he was to deliberately infect people with cowpox, Jenner thought, they would develop immunity against the deadly human version of the disease.
A good idea should be tested experimentally, and fortunately, people trusted Jenner’s reputation as a respected community doctor and thus allowed him to do terrible things to them. In 1796 he conducted his famous experiment. Jenner took a male child subject, scratched his skin and applied, directly on the scratch, pus from cowpox blisters on the hands of a milkmaid who had contracted cowpox from a cow. As expected, the child experienced a very mild version of the disease and recovered quickly. Jenner then repeated the same process, using pus from a blister of a person infected with smallpox, and fortunately, the experiment was a success and the child remained healthy. How unfortunate it would have been had it turned out that Jenner was wrong and the child would have died.
Jenner’s vision turned out nicely. Without any knowledge of viruses, and without the moral inhibitions that may have prevented him from performing the experiment, he created an effective vaccine against a deadly disease and paved the road for other vaccines that saved hundreds of millions from severe and deadly diseases. In fact, the terms “Vaccination” and “Vaccine” were derived from the latin word “Vacca” (cow) as reference to Jenner’s experiment. A worldwide vaccination campaign during the 20th century succeeded at completely eradicating smallpox, such that today copies of the virus exist only in two laboratories in the world and the last patient was diagnosed in 1977.
A brilliant experiment with no moral inhibitions. Jenner in a painting by Raphael Smith | Image: Wikipedia
The Wizard of the West - Nikola Tesla
Few inventors have influenced our lives more than Nikola Tesla. He is mainly remembered for his brilliant inventions in the fields of electricity and radio, but even more so for his extraordinary and capricious personality. Despite his brilliant mind and groundbreaking discoveries, he received almost no reward for his inventions and died destitute and penniless.
Already as a child in Serbia, Tesla demonstrated brilliant engineering talent. In 1881 he began working as a telegraph operator and immediately developed a machine that would send signals in morse code in his stead and allow him to invest his time in other endeavors. In 1884 he emigrated to the United States and began working for the inventor Thomas Alva Edison, but the two quickly fell out over competition for money and prestige. The rivalry between the two intensified when Tesla teamed up with industrialist George Westinghouse to promote his alternating current technology, as opposed to the direct current technology promoted by Edison. Tesla and his partner won the war of currents by a landslide, but Tesla himself did not reap the rewards. He waived the copyright and patents and let Westinghouse take the grand prize.
Tesla also took part in the invention of the radio. In 1900 he patented a method for transmission of radio waves based on the voltage transformer concept, but lost the patent and the prestige to the Italian Guglielmo Marconi. Only six months after Tesla’s death did a court of law restore his rights to the invention.
Tesla’s feverish mind has also produced brilliant inventions that were less successful. One of the standout inventions is the Tesla Coil, which allegedly allowed the projection of electric lighting in a cordless manner over long distances. The inventor even managed to transmit electricity using this method to a distance of 28 miles, but soon the funding source for the project was cut and Tesla once again ended up broke. His other inventions also include an electric car, a machine that generates earthquakes, a lightbulb without a filament, an X-ray machine and more.
Similar to his inventions, his life was also unusual. Tesla slept for only two hours every night and used to feed pigeons from his hotel window. He also spent thousands of dollars on medical care for injured pigeons, including a white female pigeon towards which, according to his words, he developed true love and built a device to support the pigeons’ broken wing and leg. Towards the end of his life he used to annually declare strange inventions, such as an engine that runs on cosmic rays, a new form of energy that contradicts Einstein, a machine that fires death rays and more.
Tesla gained fame in his lifetime, but not comfort, and was even called “The Wizard of the West”. Many tales surrounded him, some even attributed to him the invention of a time machine. Rumors of his strange inventions spread further after his death, when FBI agents stormed his residence and confiscated documents and instruments. The unit of measure of the strength of a magnetic field is currently named after him. He is mostly remembered as a brilliant and delusional man who continues inspiring scientists and entrepreneurs to this day.
A prolific and groundbreaking inventor who made others rich and remained penniless. Nikola Tesla | Source: Wikipedia
Head of a Cult - Pythagoras
From a distance of over 2,600 years there is no certain way of diagnosing a person’s character and personality, but the sure thing is that the Greek mathematician Pythagoras was a brilliant and charismatic person, whose science and philosophy became his was of life and who swept masses of fans who made him their guru.
Today we know Pythagoras mostly for the mathematical theorem named after him, which deals with the relations between the edges of a right triangle. For his contemporaries, however, he was, above all, a religious leader. His students, members of the Pythagorean school of philosophy, operated as a secret society with rigorous admission trials, which included, among other things, a five-year vow of silence. They focused their lives on philosophy, mathematics, astronomy and music, believed in reincarnation and avoided eating meat. Their motto, or “the foundation of the world” according to their dogma, was the number
Many legends formed around Pythagoras, including members generated by his disciples and members of his cult, which outlasted him by many years and some claim that his disciples were actively responsible for a large part of the mathematical discoveries that were attributed to their leader. It was also claimed that he was the son of Apollo, that his body radiated light, that he had a golden thigh and that he could be seen in multiple places at the same time. It is naturally difficult to tell which of these myths were created during his lifetime and which were formed after his death.
Either way, his contribution to science, philosophy and even music, directly, as a mathematician or indirectly, as a teacher and spiritual guide, is unquestionable. His work also bought him many enemies. His cult’s gathering place in Crotone, Italy was eventually set on fire, and according to some versions, he was killed in a lynch.
A secret society that worshiped numbers and a leader encased in myth. Pythagoras | Source: Wikipedia
Incitement to murder - Stanley Milgram
The findings were surprising and groundbreaking: 65 percent of the subjects reached the highest voltage strength, 450 volts, at which the person taking the memory test supposedly no longer responded to the shocks. No subject stopped before 300 volts - well above the voltage strength of a home power grid. Many of them expressed severe signs of distress and anxiety, but kept shocking the “tested” actor nonetheless.
Apart from the appraisal he received for his findings, there was also fierce criticism over the ethical implications of his experiments. His critics argued that people should not be placed in a position where they believe that they have killed another person, and also had reservations regarding the deception element of the experiment, which is very common to this day in experiments in social psychology. However, it should be stated in his defense that when questioned following the experiment, 84% of the subjects described the experience as positive, and 15% described it as neutral.
The experiment greatly influenced the world of social psychology and led to further studies on the subject of obedience to authority. The most famous among them is Philip Zimbardo’s prison experiment, in which test subjects were randomly assigned to wardens and inmates and adopted these roles so thoroughly that the experiment got out of control and was stopped half way through. Today, influenced in part by the discussion provoked by Milgram’s experiments, ethical norms have changed and it is currently unacceptable to cause such severe distress to test subjects, even if only temporarily.
Tested subjects agreed to electrocute a fellow man to death, and most described the experience as a positive one in retrospect . Milgram | Source: Wikipedia
Involuntary confinement - Ignaz Semmelweis
And finally, meet Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian obstetrician who was forcibly committed to a mental hospital by his colleagues, when the contemporary scientific community of his days refused to accept his blatantly correct claim that doctors should wash their hands.
Semmelweis held a managerial position in the maternal ward of the Vienna General Hospital, at a time when a huge proportion of women (10-33%) died after childbirth from blood sepsis and other infectious diseases collectively referred to as “Childbed Fever”. His ward, the First Clinic at the Vienna General Hospital, suffered from a high mortality rate that reached a peak of 18.3%, compared with only 2% at the hospital’s parallel maternal ward, the Second Clinic, and troubled by these numbers, Semmelweis tried to figure out the reason for this difference.
At a certain point he realized the crucial difference between wards - the other ward employed mostly midwives, while his ward employed many doctors who were engaged in autopsies during the course of teaching medical students. Semmelweis reasoned that ‘cadaverous particles’ from the corpses, carried by the doctors on their hands (known today as bacteria) - are the cause of Childbed Fever.
Only years after Semmelweis was beaten to death in a mental hospital, did the medical establishment recognize his that he was right after all. Semmelweis | Source: Wikipedia
The solution he proposed was simple - washing hands with a disinfectant after performing an autopsy, and indeed once this rule was implemented the mortality rate dropped to 2.38 percent, and went to nearly zero when they started disinfecting instruments utilized during childbirth. However, the medical establishment refused to accept this conclusion and considered it a pseudoscientific superstition, contradicting the paradigm that diseases are caused by an imbalance between the four humors of the body (according to Hippocrates’ theory). Many doctors were also offended by the requirement to wash their hands. Semmelweis was met with contempt at every turn and was forced to move to Pesht in Hungary, where his methods were considered a success. In his previous ward in Vienna, however, mortality rates soared again to a staggering 35 percent.
He finally published his findings in 1861, in a book that was met with cold reviews. Semmelweis kept fighting the medical establishment, until he suffered from a nervous breakdown in 1865 and was forcibly committed to a mental hospital in Vienna. There he apparently misbehaved, was beaten, and died from septic shock two weeks later. His ideas kept penetrating and received scientific confirmation with the discovery of bacteria, until finally, the medical establishment was forced to abandon the previous mistaken paradigm and adopt hygiene. Semmelweis is remembered today as one of the fathers of epidemiology and a fearless fighter for the truth - for which he paid a heavy toll.