The icepick surgeon Murder, fraud, sabotage, piracy, and other dastardly deeds perpetrated in the name of science

Sam Kean

Book - 2021

"Science is a force for good in the world--at least usually. But sometimes, when obsession gets the better of scientists, they twist a noble pursuit into something sinister. Under this spell, knowledge isn't everything, it's the only thing--no matter the cost. Bestselling author Sam Kean tells the true story of what happens when unfettered ambition pushes otherwise rational men and women to cross the line in the name of science, trampling ethical boundaries and often committing crimes in the process"--

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New York : Little, Brown and Company 2021.
Main Author
Sam Kean (author)
First edition
Physical Description
vi, 360 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 325-348) and index.
  • Prologue: Cleopatra's Legacy
  • Introduction
  • 1. Piracy: The Buccaneer Biologist
  • 2. Slavery: The Corruption of the Flycatcher
  • 3. Grave-Robbing: Jekyll & Hyde, Hunter Sc Knox
  • 4. Murder: The Professor and the Janitor
  • 5. Animal Cruelty: The War of the Currents
  • 6. Sabotage: The Bone Wars
  • 7. Oath-Breaking: Ethically Impossible
  • 8. Ambition: Surgery of the Soul
  • 9. Espionage: The Variety Act
  • 10. Torture: The White Whale
  • 11. Malpractice: Sex, Power, and Money
  • 12. Fraud: Superwoman
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix: The Future Of Crime
  • Acknowledgments
  • Works Cited
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

We like to think of scientists as ethical by nature, they are too smart and dedicated (and concerned with their reputations among peers) to the search for truth to ever commit crimes, right? Kean would like to disabuse you of that notion with twelve case studies of scientists falling from the pure faith. There is the titular icepick surgeon, Walter Freeman, who performed thousands of transorbital lobotomies on mental patients. There are Anatomists in squeamish Great Britain, procuring cadavers and asking no questions of the "resurrectionists" who snatched bodies for research and practice in dissection, animals tortured by AC and DC electricity in the battle over electrification of America between Westinghouse and Edison, and a researcher of torture and stress who had a hand in creating the Unabomber. All these stories are recounted beautifully by Kean despite the horror, who blends the tales of scientific excess and crime together with exceptional skill. In a world of continually advancing technology and pandemics, Kean reminds us that ethics are incredibly important and that scientists are human beings.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Kean (The Bastard Brigade) delivers a fascinating survey of crimes committed by scientists, all of whom shared the desire to "do science too well, to the exclusion of their humanity." For many, the road toward ignominy began gradually, as their initial moral compromises snowballed out of control to further a perceived greater good. For example, the title character, American neurologist Walter Freeman, developed the transorbital lobotomy, a procedure that was initially performed with an icepick. Freeman hoped to find a simple, surgical way for treating the mentally ill; instead, his brutal and unsuccessful method was used on those with only mild symptoms. Kean's wide scope includes Nazi doctors, whose sadistic experiments yielded life-saving information on conditions such as hypothermia, and rival paleontologists, whose fossil-hunting conflicts devolved into fraud and violence. Kean argues convincingly that what makes his subjects unique in the annals of crime is that they did wrong "for data--to augment our understanding of the world." This engrossing look at crimes often committed by otherwise moral people deserves a wide readership. Agent: Rick Broadhead, Rick Broadhead & Assoc. (July)

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Review by Library Journal Review

In this witty, thought-provoking book, best-selling author Kean (The Bastard Brigade; The Disappearing Spoon) explores crimes committed in the name of scientific discovery. He examines scientists throughout history whose pursuit of knowledge took a disturbing turn but often led to discoveries with lasting impacts. Readers meet figures across the sciences, from 17th-century pirate/biologist William Dampier, who set the stage for colonialism and biopiracy, to psychologists who experimented with brutal interrogation techniques, to crooked crime labs relying on fraudulent forensics. Kean addresses the effects of these crimes and links them to ongoing conversations around topics such as gender, mental health care, and animal testing. Citing the Tuskegee study of syphilis, as well as naturalists who "piggybacked on the transatlantic slave trade to gather facts and collect specimens," he also considers the role of racism in scientific exploitation. The book concludes with thoughtful musings on new scientific territories that are ripe for crime, including space exploration and artificial intelligence. Kean is a powerful, exciting storyteller who deftly considers ethical questions within an engaging narrative. VERDICT A lively, compelling addition to the true crime and popular science genres. Morbidly curious readers may also enjoy Gory Details, by Erika Engelhaupt.--Kate Bellody, SUNY New Paltz

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