The 8 Creepiest Science Experiments

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When science is working the way it's supposed to, experiments are well thought out, ethically conducted, and designed to answer important questions. But when science isn't working the way it's supposed to, you wind up with grafted testicles, genetically engineered spider-goats, and elephants on LSD. Here's a list of the eight creepiest science experiments, involving both human subjects and unwitting guinea pigs from the animal kingdom.

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The Testicular Transplants of Dr. Stanley

San Quentin State Prison on San Francisco Bay
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You might think the worst things about San Quentin prison would be the abominable food and the unwanted attention of your fellow jailbirds. But if you were an inmate here from 1910 to 1950, you might have found yourself at the mercy of chief surgeon Leo Stanley, a fanatical believer in eugenics who simultaneously wanted to sterilize violent prisoners and "rejuvenate" them with fresh sources of testosterone.

At first, Stanley simply grafted the testicles of younger, recently executed inmates into much older (and often senile) men serving life sentences; then, when his human gonad supplies ran low, he pounded the newly detached testicles of goats, pigs, and deer into a paste that he injected into prisoners' abdomens. Some patients claimed to feel healthier and more energetic after this bizarre "treatment," but given the lack of experimental rigor, it's unclear if science gained anything in the long run. Amazingly, after retiring from San Quentin, Stanley worked as a doctor on a cruise ship, where he hopefully restricted himself to doling out aspirin and antacids.

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"What Do You Get When You Cross a Spider and a Goat?"

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There's nothing quite as tedious as harvesting silk from spiders. First of all, spiders tend to be very, very small, so a single lab technician would have to "milk" thousands of individuals just to fill up a single test tube. Second, spiders are extremely territorial, so each of these individuals would have to be kept isolated from all the others, rather than jammed into one cage. What to do? Well, duh: just splice the spider gene responsible for creating silk into the genome of a more tractable animal, like, say, a goat.

That's exactly what researchers at the University of Wyoming did in 2010, resulting in a population of female goats that expressed strands of silk in their mothers' milk. Otherwise, the university insists, the goats are perfectly normal but don't be surprised if you visit Wyoming one day and see a shaggy Angora hanging down from the underside of a cliff.

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The Stanford Prison Experiment

Dr. Philip Zimbardo
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It's the single most infamous experiment in history; it was even the subject of its own movie, released in 2015. In 1971, Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo recruited 24 students, half of whom he assigned as "prisoners," and the other half as "guards," in a makeshift prison in the basement of the psychology building.

Within two days, the "guards" began to assert their power in unsavory ways, and the "prisoners" resisted and then outright revolted, at one point using their beds to blockade the basement door. Then things really got out of hand: the guards retaliated by forcing the prisoners to sleep naked on concrete, near buckets of their own excrement, and one inmate had a complete breakdown, kicking and screaming in an uncontrollable rage. The upshot of this experiment? Otherwise normal, reasonable people can succumb to their darkest demons when given "authority," which helps to explain everything from the Nazi concentration camps to the Abu Ghraib detention facility.

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Project Artichoke and MK-ULTRA

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"Can we get control of an individual to the point where he will do our bidding against his will, and even against fundamental laws of nature, such as self-preservation?" That is an actual line from an actual CIA memo, written in 1952, discussing the idea of using drugs, hypnosis, microbial pathogens, extended isolation, and who knows what else to obtain information from enemy agents and intransigent captives.

By the time this memo was written, Project Artichoke had already been active for a year, the subjects of its abusive techniques including homosexuals, racial minorities, and military prisoners. In 1953, Project Artichoke mutated into the much more sinister MK-ULTRA, which added LSD to its arsenal of mind-altering tools. Sadly, most of the records of these experiments were destroyed by then-CIA director Richard Helms in 1973, when the Watergate scandal opened the unsavory possibility that details about MK-ULTRA would become public.

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The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

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Despite its horrific reputation now, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study actually began in 1932 with the best of intentions. That year, the U.S. Public Health Service partnered with Tuskegee University, a black institution, to study and treat African-American men infected with the sexually transmitted disease syphilis. The problems began in the depths of the Great Depression when the Tuskegee Syphilis Study lost its funding. Rather than disband, however, the researchers continued to observe (but not treat) their infected subjects over the next several decades; worse, these subjects were denied penicillin even after this antibiotic was proved (in studies conducted elsewhere) to be an effective cure.

An astonishing breach of scientific and medical ethics, the Tuskegee Syphilis Study lies at the root of the generations of distrust of the U.S. medical establishment among African Americans, and explains why some activists are still convinced that the AIDS virus was deliberately engineered by the CIA to infect minority populations.

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Pinky and the Brain

the brain
Warner Bros.

Sometimes you have to wonder if scientists spend half their day standing around water coolers saying stuff like, "how about we cross a chicken with a pig? No? Okay, how about a raccoon and a maple tree?" In the tradition of the spider-goat described above, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center recently made news by transplanting human glial cells (which insulate and protect neurons) into the brains of mice. Once inserted, the glial cells rapidly multiplied and turned into astrocytes, the star-shaped cells that strengthen neuronal connections; the difference is that human astrocytes are much bigger than mouse astrocytes and wire in hundreds of times as many connections.

While the experimental mice didn't exactly sit down and read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, they did display improved memory and cognitive abilities, to the extent that rats (which are smarter than mice) have been targeted for the next round of research.

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The Attack of the Killer Mosquitoes

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You don't hear much these days about "entomological warfare," that is, harnessing swarms of insects to infect, disable and kill enemy soldiers and noncombatants. In the mid-1950s, though, biting bug battles were a big deal, as witness three separate "experiments" conducted by the U.S. Army. In "Operation Drop Kick" in 1955, 600,000 mosquitoes were air-dropped into black neighborhoods in Florida, resulting in dozens of illnesses.

That year, "Operation Big Buzz" witnessed the distribution of 300,000 mosquitoes, again in largely minority neighborhoods, the (undocumented) results also undoubtedly including numerous illnesses. Lest other insects feel jealous, these experiments were conducted shortly after "Operation Big Itch," in which hundreds of thousands of tropical rat fleas were loaded into missiles and dropped onto a test range in Utah.

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"I Have a Great Idea, Gang! Let's Give an Elephant Acid!"

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The hallucinogenic drug LSD didn't break into the American mainstream until the mid-1960s; before then, it was the subject of intensive scientific research. Some of these experiments were reasonable, some were sinister, and some were simply irresponsible. In 1962, a psychiatrist at the Oklahoma City School of Medicine injected an adolescent elephant with 297 milligrams of LSD, over 1,000 times the typical human dose.

Within minutes, the unfortunate subject, Tusko, swayed, buckled, trumpeted loudly, fell on the ground, defecated, and had an epileptic seizure; in an attempt to resuscitate him, the researchers injected a huge dose of a drug used to treat schizophrenia, at which point Tusko promptly expired. The resulting paper, published in the reputable scientific journal ​Nature, somehow concluded that LSD "may prove valuable in elephant control work in Africa."​

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Strauss, Bob. "The 8 Creepiest Science Experiments." ThoughtCo, Aug. 1, 2021, Strauss, Bob. (2021, August 1). The 8 Creepiest Science Experiments. Retrieved from Strauss, Bob. "The 8 Creepiest Science Experiments." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).