15 of History's Greatest Mad Scientists

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When it comes to scientists, brilliance and eccentricity seem to go hand in hand. Some of the most innovative minds in human history have also been the strangest. From eccentric geniuses to the downright insane, here are some of history’s greatest mad scientists.


Born in Castle Frankenstein in 1673, Johann Conrad Dippel was a theologian, alchemist, and scientist who developed a popular dye called Prussian Blue that is still used to this day. But Dippel is better remembered for his more controversial experiments. He mixed animal bones and hides together in a stew he called “Dippel’s Oil,” which he claimed was an elixir that could extend the lifespan of anyone who consumed it. He also loved dissecting animals, and some believe he even stole human bodies from Castle Frankenstein. Dippel is often cited as an inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though the claim remains controversial.


Another possible Frankenstein inspiration was mad scientist Giovanni Aldini, who among other strange experiments, was obsessed with the effects of electrocution. Aldini, who was something of a celebrity in the early 19th century, travelled Europe, demonstrating the powers of electricity. He was also one of the first scientists to treat mental patients with electric shocks. Though his methods were unconventional, Aldini was well respected in his time, and the emperor of Austria even made him a Knight of the Iron Crown. 


Nineteenth century theologian and paleontologist William Buckland was the first person to write a full description of a fossilized dinosaur, which he called the Megalosaurus. But though his work was admired, the early paleontologist had some pretty strange appetites: Buckland was obsessed with trying to eat his way through the entire animal kingdom. He claimed to have consumed mice, porpoises, panthers, bluebottle flies, and even the preserved heart of King Louis XIV.


Anyone who took high school math knows about the Pythagorean theorem. But they might not know that, in addition to being a brilliant mathematician, Pythagoras really hated eating beans. If that sounds more like a personal preference than a mark of madness, consider the fact that he not only avoided eating legumes, but that he went so far as to forbid his followers from eating them as well. It’s unclear where Pythagoras’s bean aversion came from, though some believe Pythagoras saw them as sacred. According to one legend, Pythagoras died when he was being pursued by a group of ruffians, but refused to seek refuge in a nearby bean field. 


Eighteenth century engineer, astronomer, and professional tinkerer Benjamin Banneker is believed to have made the first clock built entirely in America. Banneker helped survey the boundaries of the area that would become Washington D.C., charted the stars and planets every night, predicted eclipses, and was one of America’s earliest African American scientists. How did he make time to do all that? By working all night, and sleeping only in the early hours of the morning, of course. The quirky scientist was said to spend each night wrapped in a cloak, lying under a pear tree, meditating on the revolutions of heavenly bodies. Instead of in a lab or office, the astronomer dozed where he could also (potentially) do work: beneath a tree. 


One of the most influential scientists in history, Isaac Newton was also one of the quirkiest. The physicist and mathematician was known to experiment on himself while studying optics, even going so far as to poke himself in the eye with a needle. He was also obsessed with the apocalypse and believed the world would end sometime after the year 2060. 


One of England’s first female natural philosophers, Margaret Cavendish was a controversial figure in the 17th century. An outspoken intellectual and prolific writer, she ruffled a few feathers among those who believed women had no place in the scientific community. As a result, Cavendish was often called “Mad Madge.” But though Cavendish wasn’t truly insane, she was more than a little socially inept. On one occasion, Cavendish was “pondering upon the natures of Mankind,” and decided to write down all of the positive qualities possessed by one of her friends on one piece of paper, and on another, all of the woman’s negative qualities. Cavendish then decided to send her friend the list of positive qualities, which she assumed would be appreciated. Unfortunately, Cavendish accidentally sent the wrong list, and received an outraged response from her friend. Cavendish also acted as her own physician, and likely died as a result of her refusal to seek outside medical care.


One of the most renowned scholars of the Northern Song Dynasty, Shen Kuo was a master of astronomy, physics, math, and geology, arguing, among other things, that tides are caused by the moon’s gravitational pull and that the Earth and the Sun are spherical, not flat. But he’s also credited as the first writer to describe a UFO sighting. Shen documented sightings of unidentified flying objects in his writing, describing the descent of floating objects “as bright as a pearl.” Nowadays, contemporary UFO theorists have latched onto Shen’s work as the first written record of an alien spacecraft. Shen himself never made that connection: Generally speaking, he was more interested in divination and the supernatural than alien visitors. 


A great astronomer and an even greater partier, Tycho Brahe was born in Denmark in 1546, and lost his nose in a mathematical disagreement that elevated to a brawl. The scientist spent the rest of his life wearing a copper prosthetic nose. Brahe also threw elaborate parties on his own private island, had a court jester who sat under the table at banquets, and kept a pet elk who loved to imbibe just as much as he did. 


Mary Anning was a mad fossil collector: Starting at age 12, Anning became obsessed with finding fossils and piecing them together. Driven by acute intellectual curiosity as well as economic incentives (the working class Anning sold most of the fossils she discovered), Anning became famous among 19th century British scientists. So many people would travel to her home in Lyme Regis to join her on her fossil hunts that after she died locals actually noticed a drop in tourism to the region. But it’s not Anning’s passion for fossils that sets her apart as a slightly mad scientist, but rather the supposed origins of her intellectual curiosity: As an infant, the sickly young Mary was struck by lightning while watching a traveling circus. That lightning strike, according to Anning’s family, was at the root of the once-unexceptional Mary’s superior intelligence. 


Sometimes called the “Master of a Hundred Arts,” Athanasius Kircher was a polymath who studied everything from biology and medicine to religion. But Kircher didn’t just study everything, he seems to have believed in everything as well. At a time when scientists like Rene Descartes were becoming increasingly skeptical of mythological phenomena, Kircher believed strongly in the existence of fictional beasts and beings like mermaids, giants, dragons, basilisks, and gryphons.


In contrast to Anthanasius Kircher, Ancient Roman poet and scientist Lucretius spent much of his life trying to disprove the existence of mythological beasts. But he employed some truly creative logic to do so. Lucretius is best known for being one of the earliest scientists to write about atoms. But he also argued that centaurs and other mythological animal mash-ups were impossible because of the different rates at which animals aged. A centaur, for instance, could never exist according to Lucretius, because horses age much faster than humans. As a result, for much of its lifespan, a centaur would be running around with the head and torso of a human baby on top of a fully grown horse’s body. 


While training to become a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania, Stubbins Ffirth became obsessed with proving yellow fever was not contagious. In order to do so, the young researcher would expose himself to the bodily fluids of yellow fever patients. Ffirth never caught yellow fever, though contemporary scientists know that this was not because the disease isn’t contagious (it is), but because most of the patients whose samples he used were in the late stages of the disease, and thus, past the point of contagion. 


Renaissance era scientist Paracelsus is sometimes called the “father of toxicology.” But he also thought he could create a living homunculus (a living, miniature person) from the bodily fluids of full-sized people. He also believed in mythological beings like wood nymphs, giants, and succubae. 


Though he’s best known as an artist, Leonardo thought up some pretty amazing inventions. From an early version of the airplane to a primitive scuba suit, Leonardo designed technological devices that are in use to this day. But Leonardo wasn’t your average inventor: He had no formal schooling, dissected animals to learn about their anatomy, loved designing war devices, and recorded many of his best ideas backwards in mirror image cursive, possibly to protect his works from plagiarism.

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February 15, 2016 - 12:15pm
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