By the time we reach college age, most of us are aware that real scientists are nothing like their movie counterparts. There’s a lot less wild hair, while bad German accents and screams of “it lives!” are few and far between. However, not so long ago, the line between real life and fiction was much more blurred. Right into the 20th century, great scientists were conducting vital, world-changing research while also, in some cases, presenting more than their fair share of oddness and peculiarity. Here, we give you ten real-life scientists who could give Victor Frankenstein a run for his money in the eccentricity stakes.
10. Francis Crick (1916-2004)
Along with James D. Watson, Francis Crick will forever be remembered as one of the discoverers of the very structure of DNA. The duo met while working at the University of Cambridge and in 1962 received a Nobel Prize for their scientific work. Crick was arguably among the finest minds in science, which is what makes his later beliefs all the more difficult to fathom. At some point in the 1970s, Crick became an advocate of one of the weirdest pseudoscientific theories of all time – a theory so out there that if someone on the bus were to suggest it to you, you might be tempted to edge away from them quite quickly. The premise of “directed panspermia” is that life on Earth was deliberately seeded by extra-terrestrials – an idea that seems more like the plot of a sci-fi film than anything based in methodical scientific research.
9. William Buckland (1784-1856)
William Buckland – an alumnus of Corpus Christi College, Oxford and a contemporary of Charles Darwin – is remembered for being the first man to pen a complete description of a fossilized dinosaur, the Megalosaurus. In his spare time, however, he was also a man who insisted on dining on everything. And we do mean everything, including roast hedgehog, potted ostrich, panthers, porpoises, puppies, and even bat urine; garden moles, though, were apparently a bridge too far. However, perhaps Buckland’s greatest gustatory achievement is his reportedly having eaten the shrunken heart of King Louis XIV – a distinction that arguably overshadows his account of a Megalosaurus. Perhaps any scientists wishing for a place in the history books should give up the experiments and get chewing on anything that crosses their path. Then again, perhaps not.
8. José Delgado (1915-2011)
University of Madrid graduate José Delgado may have received a prestigious professorship at Yale University, but his research at the venerable institution’s physiology department was mighty strange, dealing on the whole as it did with mind control. We’re not joking: while at Yale in the 1950s and ‘60s, Delgado inserted electrode implants into the brains of primates and used a remote control that gave off radio frequencies to make the animals perform complicated movements. Later, he placed an implant into the brain of a bull and got into the ring with the beast, using his transmitter to stop it charging before it reached him.
Perhaps most alarmingly of all, Delgado also wired up no less than 25 people. Behaviourally, his device only impacted people’s aggression, but he kept striving for a way to achieve mind control, once creepily stating, “We must electronically control the brain. Someday armies and generals will be controlled by electric stimulation of the brain.”
7. Stubbins Ffirth (1784-1820)
Stubbins Ffirth was a University of Pennsylvania researcher fixated on one particular scientific scheme – and a very dangerous one at that. As a trainee doctor, he became obsessed with the idea that yellow fever was non-contagious, to the extent that he went to great extremes trying to prove it. Armed only with a trusty blade and his incessant desire to find the truth, Ffirth first sliced open his arms and smeared vomit from yellow fever patients into the wounds. When that made no difference, he poured the vomit in his eye, drank some of the vile liquid, fried the stuff and breathed in the fumes, and – in a final act of madness – covered himself with blood, urine and saliva from infected patients. Ultimately, Ffirth proved his theory, insofar as he didn’t get sick. However, we now know that this was as much down to him taking samples from late-stage patients who were past the point of contagion. In other words, Ffirth swallowed infected vomit but didn’t shed much new light on the disease.
6. Sergei Brukhonenko (1890-1960)
Soviet scientist Sergei Brukhonenko has been credited with helping bring about important advances in Russian open-heart surgery, but his grisly experiments on animals were far more disturbing. Not one to wait, Brukhonenko wasn’t content with slicing up animals after they’d died. More specifically, not only did he not like to wait, but he also didn’t like the animals to die – even after they’d been decapitated. In the late 1930s, Brukhonenko and his team undertook a series of experiments as part of which they removed a canine’s head and kept it alive away from its body by hooking it up to air- and blood-supply apparatus. Nor was this the only monstrosity Brukhonenko created: another hound had all the blood drawn from its body only to later be brought back to life by this Soviet Frankenstein. Brukhonenko’s gruesome work was captured on camera in the 1940 film Experiments in the Revival of Organisms.
5. Paracelsus (1493-1541)
Paracelsus was a learned man of the Renaissance who earned a doctorate in medicine from the University of Ferrara in the early 16th century. He is now seen as the father of modern toxicology but was also a practicing physician, botanist and occultist – the latter of which may have contributed to one of his exceptionally weird personal experiments. Paracelsus was convinced that he could create a living homunculus – a tiny man – by keeping semen in a warm place and feeding it on human blood. He even left instructions for any others who might wish to try it, and fervently believed that this method was the genesis of wood nymphs and giants. Science may have been a lot less advanced hundreds of years ago, but this was still a bizarre hypothesis that looks even odder to us today.
4. Jack Parsons (1914-1952)
The story of rocket scientist Jack Parsons is so monumentally insane that it’s tempting to think it’s all the product of a deranged Hollywood scriptwriter’s imagination. However, the truth of the California Institute of Technology researcher’s personal life is well documented. In 1939 Parsons converted to Thelema, a philosophy-cum-religion developed by the famous occultist Aleister Crowley. Parsons together with his housemates were spotted on a number of occasions dancing practically nude around a fire in the garden, in an apparent pagan ritual. At other times, he joined up with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard to attempt to raise the mother of the Antichrist; to do this, Parsons masturbated while Hubbard wrote notes. The pair also believed that they could summon spirits, so Hubbard intoned while Parsons and his mistress made love. And when Hubbard later absconded with Parsons’ girlfriend, the scientist reported that he was trying to hex his foe. Parsons was eventually killed in an explosion that some have suggested was down to a magical experiment.
3. Ilya Ivanov (1870-1932)
You may well be wondering what could be crazier than Jack Parsons’ escapades. However, Soviet biologist Ilya Ivanov gives him a run for his money. In 1924 the Bolshevik government granted Ivanov permission to leave the country for the express purpose of breeding hybrid ape-humans. In the summer of 1926, Ivanov, by now in Paris, grafted a woman’s ovary into a chimp named Nora and tried to fertilize her with human sperm. In November that year, he travelled to Africa and inseminated a trio of chimps with yet more human sperm. Then when none of the animals fell pregnant, he changed tactics and instead tried to find Soviet women who would willingly be inseminated with chimp sperm – something for which he acquired no less than five volunteers. However, before the experiments could get properly underway, a Stalinist removal of scientists resulted in him being sent away to Kazakhstan, where he died within two years of his arrival.
2. Robert G. Heath (1915-1999)
Like José Delgado, Robert G. Heath dealt in mind manipulation – only not in exactly the same way. Whereas Delgado seems to have been obsessed with domination, Heath concerned himself with the control of pleasure and pain receptors. While working at New Orleans’ Tulane University, Heath found that by wiring up people’s brains with electrodes, he could give them bursts of pleasure. And if he then inserted a narrow tube into the brain along with the electrodes, Heath could directly administer a chemical called acetylcholine – resulting in virtual ecstasy, including multiple orgasms continuing for up to half an hour. On the flipside of the coin, when the pain centers were triggered, patients could be gripped with agony, as one man discovered: “It’s knocking me out… I just want to claw…” he said. Some believe that Heath was connected with the CIA’s illegal MK-ULTRA project – a notion that’s really not that hard to believe, all things considered.
1. Nikola Tesla (1856-1943)
Nikola Tesla – who attended the Austrian Polytechnic in Graz but never graduated – was possibly the most inventive and zaniest scientist who ever lived. When not producing bolts of artificial lightning that measured up to 135 feet long, Tesla worked on inventions such as a particle gun that he believed might bring down tens of thousands of airplanes and spoke of anti-gravity flying machines. Some of his saner research included extensive work on AC electrical currents and studies involving X-rays.
As he got older, Tesla took his apparent obsessive-compulsive disorder to higher levels, becoming fixated on the number three and developing an extreme aversion to touching human hair. Famously, the renowned inventor believed that he had been in contact with extra-terrestrials, and he also managed to fall head over heels in love with a pigeon – from which he believed his feelings were reciprocated. If Tesla ever set out to be a crazy genius, then he accomplished it with aplomb.