03 November 2007
From New Scientist Print Edition.
I STARTED collecting examples of bizarre experiments years ago while in graduate school studying the history of science. I confess I had no profound intellectual motive; I simply found them fascinating. They filled me with disbelief, astonishment, disgust and - best of all - laughter.
Here are 10 of the bizarre experiments of all time - which, it must be said, mostly fall closer to madness than to genius.
Elephants on acid
What happens if you give an elephant LSD? Researchers solved this mystery on Friday 3 August 1962, when Warren Thomas, director of Lincoln Park Zoo in Oklahoma City, fired a cartridge-syringe containing 297 milligrams of LSD into the rump of Tusko the elephant. With Thomas were two colleagues from the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine, Louis Jolyon West and Chester M. Pierce.
The dose was about 3000 times what a human would typically take. Thomas, West and Pierce figured that if they were going to give an elephant LSD they'd better not give it too little. They later explained that the experiment was designed to find out if LSD would induce musth in an elephant - musth being a kind of temporary madness male elephants sometimes experience during which they become highly aggressive and secrete a sticky fluid from their temporal glands. One may also suspect a small element of ghoulish curiosity was involved.
Whatever the reason for the experiment, it almost immediately went awry. Tusko reacted as if he had been shot by a gun. He trumpeted around his pen for a few minutes and then keeled over. Horrified, the researchers tried to revive him with a variety of antipsychotics, but about an hour later he was dead. In an article published four months after the event (Science, vol 138, p 1100), the three scientists sheepishly concluded: "It appears that the elephant is highly sensitive to the effects of LSD."
Robert E. Cornish, a researcher at the Berkeley campus of the University of California during the 1930s, believed he had found a way to restore life to the dead - at least in cases where major organ damage was not involved. His technique involved seesawing corpses up and down to circulate the blood while injecting a mixture of adrenalin and anticoagulants. He tested his method on a series of fox terriers, all of whom he named Lazarus after the biblical character brought back to life by Jesus.
While researching the sexual behaviour of turkeys, Martin Schein and Edgar Hale of Pennsylvania State University discovered that male members of that species truly are not fussy. When placed in a room with a lifelike model of a female turkey, the birds mated with it as eagerly as they would the real thing.
Intrigued by this observation, Schein and Hale embarked on a series of experiments to determine the minimum stimulus it takes to excite a male turkey. This involved removing parts from the turkey model one by one until the male bird eventually lost interest.
Tail, feet and wings - Schein and Hale removed them all, but still the clueless bird waddled up to the model, let out an amorous gobble, and tried to do his thing. Finally, only a head on a stick remained. The male turkey was still keen. In fact, it preferred a head on a stick to a headless body.
The researchers speculated that the males' head fixation stemmed from the mechanics of turkey mating. When a male turkey mounts a female, he is so much larger than her that he covers her completely, except for her head. Therefore, they suggested, it is her head that serves as his focus of erotic attention.
Schein and Hale then went on to investigate how minimal they could make the head before it failed to excite the turkey. They discovered that a freshly severed head on a stick worked best. Next in order of preference was a dried-out male head, followed by a two-year-old "discolored, withered, and hard" female head. Last place went to a plain balsa wood head, but even that elicited a sexual response. They published their results in 1965 in a book called Sex and Behavior.
Before we humans snicker at the sexual predelictions of turkeys, we should remember that our species stands at the summit of the bestial pyramid of the perverse. Humans will attempt to mate with almost anything. A case in point is Thomas Granger, the teenage boy who in 1642 became one of the first people to be executed in Puritan New England. His crime? He had sex with a turkey.
In 1954 Soviet surgeon Vladimir Demikhov shocked the world by unveiling a surgically created monstrosity - a two-headed dog. He created the creature in a lab at the Moscow Institute of Surgery by grafting the head, shoulders and front legs of a puppy onto the neck of a mature German shepherd.
Demikhov invited reporters from around the world to witness his creation. Journalists gasped as the two heads simultaneously lapped at bowls of milk, and then cringed as the milk from the puppy's head dribbled out the disconnected stump of its oesophageal tube. Of course, the puppy did not need to eat or drink; it received all its nourishment from the circulatory system of the older dog. But it liked to drink because its mouth became dry. It also enjoyed licking candy.
Of particular interest was the extent to which the two heads shared a common set of sensory experiences. Reporters observed that when one head wanted to eat, so did the other. When it was hot, both panted. If one yawned, so did the other. Not all their emotions were identical, though. The older dog, annoyed at having the foreign head attached to his neck, occasionally tried to shake it off. This prompted the puppy to retaliate by biting his larger companion on the ear.
Demikhov's two-headed dog lived for only six days, but over the course of the next 15 years he constructed 19 more. None of these lived very long either - the record was a month - as they inevitably succumbed to tissue rejection. Demikhov seemed strangely naive about this, and frequently commented that the dogs died only because of imperfections in his surgical technique, which would soon be overcome. This attitude puzzled his western counterparts.
The Soviet Union proudly paraded the dogs as proof of the nation's medical pre-eminence, but most doctors in the west, while conceding Demikhov's skill as a surgeon, dismissed them as a publicity stunt. The western press eventually began referring to them as Russia's "surgical Sputnik". Demikhov justified his activities as part of a continuing series of experiments in surgical techniques, directed ultimately at learning how to perform a human heart transplant. Christiaan Barnard of the University of Cape Town in South Africa beat him to this goal in December 1967, but Demikhov is widely credited with paving the way.