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The Quick 10: 10 Mad Scientists

strangeloveDr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau, Dr. Strangelove, and my favorite "“Dr. Frank N. Furter. Mad Scientists abound in science fiction, but what's scarier than these fictional docs are their real-life counterparts. I should warn you, the last two are men who did really appalling, unethical experiments to unwilling human subjects. It made me a little squeamish to write about them, so skip them if you're not up for it. With that"¦

1. Herophilos was a Greek physician who probably introduced the experimental method to the world. It's been written that he vivisected at least 600 living prisoners to see what they looked like inside during his lifetime, from 335-280 B.C.

languille2. Dr. Gabriel Beaurieux was fascinated with severed heads. But at least he didn't sever them himself "“ at the time, France was still actively using the guillotine because it was believed to be a quick, humane death. But Beaurieux's studies showed that perhaps it was not as quick as previously thought. In 1905, he watched a man named Languille be"¦ well, separated from his body. Here's the account:

Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck...

I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. [...] It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: 'Languille!' I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions "“ I insist advisedly on this peculiarity "“ but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.

Next Languille's eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. After several seconds, the eyelids closed again[...].

It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. Then there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement "“ and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.[

3. Johann Konrad Dippel. As Miss C. pointed out this morning Dr. Dippel (say that. It's fun.) may have been the inspiration for Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein. Dippel did live at Castle Frankenstein in Germany, and he definitely did strange experiments. But they weren't without merit "“ he did end up inventing Dippel's Oil, which was used for a while as a medicine, an animal repellent and insecticide. It's not used much any more. He also sort of accidentally created the dye that makes "Prussian blue", which was great for artists "“ previously, the only way to make that color was either prone to fading or extremely expensive.

So it's clear that he was frequently experimenting with animal bones and the like, but it's possible that he dug up cadavers to experiment on them, too. There were rumors at the time that he was trying to transfer the soul of one cadaver to the body of another. This has never been verified"¦ but it sure makes for a good story.

4. Andrew Ure was a Scottish doctor in who practiced in the 19th century.

He used the corpse of a local murderer, who was executed by hanging, to see if people who had died certain ways could be brought back to life. Based on his trials, he concluded that anyone who died of suffocation, drowning or hanging (anything that restricted breathing, I suppose) could be brought back to life if the phrenic nerve was stimulated. I'm not entirely sure how he concluded this, since he clearly was never able to bring anyone back to life, but he concluded it nonetheless.

5. Was Alfred Nobel a mad scientist? Well"¦ kind of. At least, people viewed him that way. After discovering that nitroglycerine would work to create dynamite, an unstable version of it exploded in their family-own factory. It killed his little brother and a few others who were working at the time. After this, he started to become known as the "Merchant of Death." It was even the title used when a local newspaper mistakenly printed his obituary "“ "Merchant of Death Dies." Upset by this moniker, Nobel used his vast fortune to found the Nobel Prize and distract people from the bad things that had happened because of his invention. It worked "“ to this day we associate the award with the most brilliant people in their fields.

6. In 1955, Time magazine reported that Vladimir Demikhov had successfully grafted the head of one dog onto another dog. Here's the original, rather disturbing story or you can skip that and read a few choice quotes here:

Dr. Demikhov started in a small way by replacing the hearts of dogs with artificial blood pumps. Next, he planted a second heart in a dog's chest, removing part of a lung to make room for it. The extra heart continued its own rhythm, beating independently of the original heart. Sometimes the original heart stopped beating first. Then the second heart carried the burden until it failed too.

Encouraged by his successes, Dr. Demikhov tried the reverse operation. He removed most of the body of a small puppy and grafted the head and forelegs to the neck of an adult dog. The big dog's heart pumped blood enough for both heads. When the multiple dog regained consciousness after the operation, the puppy's head woke up and yawned. The big head gave it a puzzled look and tried at first to shake it off.

The puppy's head kept its own personality. Though handicapped by having almost no body of its own, it was as playful as any other puppy. he host-dog was bored by all this, but soon became reconciled to the unaccountable puppy that had sprouted out of its neck. When it got thirsty, the puppy got thirsty and lapped milk eagerly. When the laboratory grew hot, both host-dog and puppy put out their tongues and panted to cool off. After six days of life together, both heads and the common body died.

tesla7. Nikola Tesla "“ obviously a genius. But also? A little bit crazy. Up until his death in 1943 (he was 86), he was still developing inventions and theories, even though he was completely destitute and living in a hotel. Many, many of his theories and ideas eventually came to be, even though they seemed completely insane at the time. Some of the inventions that haven't come to be yet include anti-gravity airships, teleportation, time travel and a thought photography machine. Some of that still seems improbable, but who knows what will come to be. So let's say that scientifically, Tesla wasn't mad "“ just ahead of his time.

But he did do plenty of stange things in his personal life that would classify him as a little bit odd. He probably had OCD "“ he did everything in threes or in numbers divisible by three. He was actually physically disgusted by jewelry, especially pearls. He was definitely a germophobe, although he was strangely obsessed with pigeons. He ordered special feed for pigeons he fed in Central Park and sometimes would bring a lucky few birds back to his hotel room to keep him company. He even claimed that one all-white pigeon visited him every day. He said,"Yes, I loved that pigeon, I loved her as a man loves a woman, and she loved me."
According to Tesla, she flew in through his window one night and told him she was dying. He said,

"And then, as I got her message, there came a light from her eyes - powerful beams of light". "...Yes," "...it was a real light, a powerful, dazzling, blinding light, a light more intense than I had ever produced by the most powerful lamps in my laboratory."

As you can see, the title "Mad Scientist" definitely fits the bill.

8. Giovanni Aldini liked to conduct electricity through corpses to see what they could do. After a murderer was hanged in London in 1803, Aldini put conducting rods connected to a battery on the corpse's face, which made the deceased's muscles contort and more. Apparently his left eye actually opened. Then he stuck a rod up the dead dude's rectum, which made his back arch, his legs kick and one of his fists punch. There's a more detailed account here, including one of his colleague's experiments with "zombie kittens".

9. Josef Mengele. A truly despicable human being, to be sure. He was an SS physician who conducted all kinds of terrible experiments on prisoners, completely unconcerned for their suffering or dignity. He was especially fascinated with twins "“ it's documented that he once sewed two Gypsy children together in an attempt to create Siamese twins. His other tests including injecting chemicals into the eyes of children to see if it would change their eye color, sex change operations and lethal drug injections. Much of this was done without anesthesia.

10. Shirō Ishii was a microbiologist who served in the Imperial Japanese Army suring the Second Sino-Japanese war. Like Mengele, he conducted horrifying experiments on captives, such as amputating limbs only to reattach them elsewhere on the body, freezing body parts and then thawing them out to study gangrene (while they body parts were still attached to the person), and impregnating women via rape and then removing the fetus to study it. And this is only the beginning of it "“ if you want to know more, Google "Unit 731" to read about all of their experiments "“ but don't say I didn't warn you. Ishii never served any time for his crimes against humanity. He was arrested by American occupation authorities when WWII was over, but he was set free in exchange for some of the germ warfare data he had learned conducting experiments. At least one source says he moved to Maryland and continued researching bio-weapons, but his daughter says he stayed in Japan.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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