For as long as there have been scientists, there have been scientists willing to take experimentation to the extreme. Since the Victorian Era, popular culture has embraced the idea of scientific process-driven madness. But who is the maddest of the mad scientists? Who has pushed science well over the “do no harm” line defined by the Hippocratic Oath?
In the interest of resolving this question in a pseudo-scientific manner, we’ve created a bracket of insane experimenters, a sweet 16 of lunacy broken into brackets for mind control, applied sciences, pure evil, and pharmacology.
Let’s meet our players:
- Kevin Warwick: The British engineer is nicknamed ‘Captain Cyborg’, and for good reason: Warwick has implanted cybernetic electronics and metal into his arm as part of the first step in his aim to become a cyborg. But if there’s someone who might actually accomplish this, it’s Warwick. He’s been slotted into the ‘Brains’ region since the nature of this work involves irrevocably changing the body’s nervous system and brain processes. Plenty of scientists talk a big cybernetics game, but few have decided to make themselves the primary test subject.
- Jose Delgado: The former Yale professor was infamous for his investigations into mind control through direct electronic stimulation of the brain. During the ‘50s and ‘60s, Delgado conducted several experiments on primates, inserting electrode implants into their brains and using a remote control to make them perform different movements. He also ended up experimenting on 25 humans, making some progress in controlling their aggression and emotions. He’s on record saying: “Someday armies and generals will be controlled by electric stimulation of the brain.”
- Robert J. White: Dr. White called himself ‘Humble Bob’, but PETA called him “Dr. Butcher.” One of the most talented neurosurgeons of the last century, White is probably best remembered for his 1970 head transplantation experiment on rhesus monkeys. The process involved complete decapitation and grafting of one organism’s head onto another’s body. He was successful — with the (non-consenting) participant monkey able to see, smell, hear, and taste almost like a normal monkey. None of that makes his work any less creepy.
- Robert Heath: Like Delgado, Heath was interested in mind control, but with much less sinister motives. Heath wanted to learn how people could control their own pleasure and pain responses. At Tulane University, Heath learned to elicit pleasure responses in human participants based on which brain regions he wired up. He also learned that when acetylcholine was administered in the right way, it could induce ecstatic pleasures in people, including multiple orgasms continuing for up to half an hour. Heath was also connected with the CIA’s infamous (and illegal) MK-ULTRA project.
- Nikola Tesla: Chances are good you’ve heard of Tesla and some of his exploits — including producing 135-feet long bolts of electricity, working on particle guns and anti-gravity flying machines, and AC electrical currents. His mind eroded as he aged and may have fallen in love with a pigeon. He was undeniably brilliant and undeniably eccentric, but he wasn’t able to keep those two sides of himself in balance.
- Jack Parsons: One of the principle founders of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Parsons was a pioneer of modern rocket science, and there’s no question his research laid the groundwork for helping NASA send object into Earth’s orbit and beyond. There was just one problem — Parsons was also an occultist, a member of Aleister Crowley’s pseudo-religion Thelema. At one point, he was in league with L. Ron Hubbard (the founder of Scientology) trying to summon spirits. Hubbard eventually ran off with Parsons’ girlfriend and Parsons died in an explosion when an experiment went wrong.
- Richard Feynman: The Nobel Prize in Physics laureate was also a key member of the Manhattan Project that birthed the atom bomb. Feynman would later disavow that part of his work, but he remained an important force in the world of particle physics. Feynman is probably one of the more sane individuals to be entered into this bracket, but the man also had an insatiable curiosity for other parts of life, spending his free time decoding Mayan hieroglyphics and picking locks. He may not have been crazy, but he was crazy smart to the point of supervillain-y.
- Joe Davis: Perhaps more artist than scientist, Davis nevertheless fits the criteria for “mad scientist.” His work encompasses molecular biology, bioinformatics, space art, and sculpture. Davis is currently part of MIT’s Department of Biology, where he’s given just about free reign to take part in whatever projects he likes, including experiments on how E. coli bacteria respond to jazz. He has event sent the sounds of vaginal contractions into space.
- Josef Mengele: A member of the German SS and a physician at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, Mengele is notorious for performing horrible experiments on inmates held captive at the camp, including unnecessary amputations and blood transfusions and attempts to change eye colors by injecting toxic chemicals. Many of his victims were children. Mengele died in hiding in South America.
- Shirō Ishii: Ishii could be considered Mengele’s Japanese counterpart. During World War II, he began extensive research of dangerous bacteria that could be used as germ warfare agents, conducting tests on Chinese prisoners of war and civilian populations. He’s believed to be responsible for tens of thousands of deaths. Ishii was never prosecuted for war crimes — he managed to negotiate for immunity in exchange for disclosing all his research and data on germ warfare.
- Vladimir Demikhov: Robert White’s work wouldn’t have been possible with Demikhov, a pioneer of transplantation surgeries. He conducted dog head transplants during the 1950s, creating a living two-headed dog in 1954. He’d go on to do this 19 more times. The Soviet government lavished praise on Demikhov, who was awarded the Order “For Merit to the Fatherland” shortly before he died.
- Harry Harlow: there’s no question Harlow’s work has been very influential to the field of social and cognitive psychology, but that doesn’t make it any less harrowing. Harlow is best known for his controversial experiments on rhesus monkeys, like subjecting infant monkeys to tests of intense stress and frightening stimuli. His most disturbing work included something called the ‘Pit of Despair’, where monkeys were kept in total insolation for up to 24 months, at which point they showed signs of severe psychological damage and emotional shock. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Harlow employing a forced-mating device called the “rape rack.”
- Sidney Gottlieb: An American chemist, Gottlieb was heavily involved with the CIA Project MKUltra — the goal of which was to examine mind control techniques and extract information more easily during interrogations. Gottlieb tested the mind-control capacities of LSD and other psychoactive substances on many unwitting subjects, and himself. One of his stranger ideas was putting forth a proposal to poison Fidel Castro with thallium — not to kill him, but to make his beard fall out. (He also proposed using a poisoned cigar, a poisoned wetsuit, an exploding conch shell, and a poison fountain pen.) Basically, Gottlieb’s solution for all foreign affairs amounted to poisoning the enemy. He finally retired in 1972, but there’s no question he was a very influential part of MKUltra.
- (2) Timothy Leary (died 1996): no other individual in the world did more for research into psychedelic drugs than Leary. Once called “the most dangerous man in America by Richard Nixon, Leary was a big believer in the therapeutic benefits of acid, psilocybin, and other mind-altering substances. He became a force outside of science, playing a leading role in the counterculture movement and laying the groundwork for what has evolved into today’s transhumanist movement.
- (3)Albert Hofmann (died 2008): though Leary’s name is attached more closely with LSD, Hofmann was the man to actually discover the drug. He experienced the first documented acid trip on April 9, 1943, when he ingested 250 micrograms of LSD and rode his bike home. Hofmann would go on to become a leading researcher of other psychoactive drug compounds.
- (4) Donald Ewen Cameron (died 1967): another researcher who worked under Project MKUltra, Cameron came from the field of psychiatry — and was more interested in using drugs and other tools for applications outside of assassination. Cameron’s experiments were just as despicable as Gottlieb’s, however. He would give patients various paralytic drugs and apply electroconvulsive therapy at more than 30 times the normal power, and put patients into months-long comas while exposing them to tape loops of noise or statements. Shockingly, most of these test subjects came out of these trials with varying mental traumas.
Now, without further ado, let the contest begin!
Warwick vs. Heath: This isn’t much of a fight. Heath’s work is interesting, and he gets points for his rumored involvement with MKUltra, but he ultimately lacks the big punch that Warwick possesses. I mean that literally: Warwick has a cybernetic arm. His punch is actually beyond human.
White vs. Delgado: There’s no question White has the qualities necessary for a scientist to be truly mad. But his head transplant monkeys never survived for more than a few days. Meanwhile, Delgado’s vision was much bigger: he wanted to dominate the minds of whole communities and populations. White’s work was something you’ll see imitated in B-list horror movies, while Delgado had an Orwellian scope only the maddest scientists run with.
Tesla vs. Davis: Davis is crazy, but he doesn’t come close to the notoriety or worship Tesla gets these days. Tesla FTW.
Feynman vs. Parsons: Parsons comes into this match with plenty of talent and experience, but he has a pretty big Achille’s heel that can be exploited pretty easily: his association with L. Ron Hubbard. Having connections to Scientology irreparably harms your career — unless you’re an actor. People might like your work, but they can never like you as a person. Feynman takes this one.
Mengele vs. Harlow: Both have the deranged traits you need to be a mad scientist at a high level, but Mengele beats Harlow in this fight — solely because his atrocities involved humans, while Harlow’s involved animals.
Demikhov vs. Ishii: We can distill this match into two-headed dog vs. germs. And germs win. Never underestimate the harrowing might of the microscopic organism.
Gottlieb vs. Cameron: In the first round’s biggest upset, Cameron ekes out a win and moves on. Why? Because the only things Gottlieb’s got are drugs. Cameron has drugs as well as some pretty powerful electrical equipment that can effortlessly fry someone’s brain in a matter of seconds. Electricity always wins.
Hofmann vs. Leary: The father of LSD falls to man who truly owned the crown of psychedelics during the 20th century. Leary didn’t gift us LSD, but he did more to promote it (and other psychoactive drugs) than Hofmann ever could. Mad scientists can’t just spend their days in the lab — they need to get out in the world to bring their madness to civilization.
Warwick vs. Delgado: As impressive as Delgado’s work was, the closest he came to actually controlling another human’s mind was causing them to have a sort of better or worse temper. That’s pretty much it. Warwick wants to take humanity to another level — one that exists beyond blood and flesh. Mind control is just so passé these days.
Tesla vs. Feynman: I love you Richard, but you were never really much of a threat to Nikola. Tesla wielded artificial lightning. Feynman sketched in strip clubs. Let’s leave it there.
Mengele vs. Ishii: Both men are insanely despicable and terrifying, but biological warfare is more apocalyptic in scope than even mass murder. And for that reason, Ishii moves forward here.
Cameron vs. Leary: We talked about this already. Electricity always wins. Leary’s peace-and-love approach can’t hold its own against instruments of literal shock and awe.
Warwick vs. Tesla: A battle of heavyweights here. But unfortunately for Warwick, he would never have come this far were it not for Tesla’s groundbreaking work in electrical engineering. Tesla wins because being ‘mad scientist’ is just a synonymous phrase for ‘God of Electricity’.
Ishii vs. Cameron: And that brings us to these unexpected semi-finalists. Pardon me for sounding like a broken record, but electricity always wins. Germs take a while to actually cause death and destruction. Electricity is near instantaneous.
Tesla vs. Cameron: It’s admirable to see Cameron gut it out and make it this far in the contest, but it ends here. Cameron is the 1983 North Carolina State men’s basketball team — he needs everything to go right to successfully complete a Cinderella run to the championship. Tesla is the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats — blowing through everyone else like their a bunch of puny toy soldiers. Tesla is Zeus in human form, pure and simple. And that’s why he is the Maddest Scientist Ever.