When science breaks bad: A rogue gallery of history’s worst scientists

When science breaks bad: A rogue gallery of history’s worst scientists


Walter Freeman was ambidextrous, so he could do two lobotomies at the same time. These involved jabbing two icepicks from the junk drawer in his kitchen into the eye sockets of two different patients until he felt the thin orbital bones behind their eyes crack. Swishing the picks back and forth was then all it took to sever each patient’s frontal lobe from her limbic system, unhooking her executive function and judgement from her emotions and appetites. Yes, it was usually a her.

Although he got the dubious honor of having this nifty book named for him, Dr. Freeman is not even the worst among the gallery of rogues profiled by Sam Kean in his new book The Icepick Surgeon. Freeman wasn’t a Nazi, and he wasn’t a slaver. It’s hard to beat those populations for bad guys.

Breaking bad

Sam Kean has a thing for scientific malfeasance. His previous books have touched on it, but this one is entirely dedicated to mad scientists—monomaniacs who kept their eye on the prize to the exclusion of all else, like pain, suffering, and morals. Occasionally, the prize was data; more often it was fame and fortune. But regardless of their motives, these guys (yes, it was usually a him) brushed aside any ethical qualms they may have had if those qualms interfered with their research program or whatever hypothesis they were chasing down. This book addresses why and how they did so.

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