The Icepick Surgeon: An intriguing rogue’s gallery of scientific criminals

The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science by Sam KeanThe Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science by Sam Kean 

The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science by Sam KeanMost people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.

~ Albert Einstein

Sam Kean is my favorite pop science author, ever since I read Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us in 2017. Kean has an engaging voice, a solid understanding of science, and a talent for telling stories, making complex subjects both intelligible and interesting to non-scientific readers (tellingly, he studied both physics and English literature). In his latest book, The Icepick Surgeon (2021), Kean turns his attention to the many ways in which science has been twisted to sinister and even evil purposes over the centuries. Each chapter focuses on a different era in history and a different type of corrupted science. The perpetrators of these crimes range from well-meaning though woefully misguided people to those blinded by the quest for wealth or fame to deliberately malicious actors.

The first chapter is set in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when English biologist and naturalist William Dampier took to the sea. He was a brilliant navigator and at one point was on the ship that rescued a marooned sailor, Alexander Selkirk, whose story in part inspired Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. But his passion for exploring the biology and natural history of other lands, along with a desire to be rich, also led him to join some sailing crews that were shady privateers or even outright pirates, and Kean notes that there’s no reason to think Dampier stood aloof from looting and murdering natives and sailors on other ships.

From piracy it’s a natural though disturbing step to slavery, the topic of Chapter 2, in which we follow the exploits of British naturalist Henry Smeathman in the later 1700s. Smeathman initially abhorred the slavery trade (though not enough to stay off of slave ships traveling to the far-off countries he wanted to study). But eventually he began socializing with the slave ship captains and merchants, and finally engaged in slave-trading himself as, he told himself and others, a matter of economic necessity.

Sam Kean

Sam Kean

And so it goes. Some of the stories Kean relates in The Icepick Surgeon are easy to predict: Nazi tortures in the name of science, of course, and grave-robbing to produce human bodies for medical study … which occasionally led overly ambitious grave robbers to become murderers. There’s also Walter Freeman’s practice of lobotomizing mentally ill individuals on a massive scale in the 1940s, when he traveled across the U.S.A. from asylum to asylum on lobotomy road trips: the “icepick surgeon” of the book’s title. Other chapters have more surprising topics, like Chapter 6, devoted to the sabotage and stealing between two rival dinosaur fossil hunters in the late 1800s. That chapter, like the later one about some of the American spies who stole nuclear science secrets for other countries in the post-WWII years, made for fascinating reading and weren’t too gut-wrenching.

But it was difficult to read about animal torture (Thomas Edison, for one, when he was exploring the differences between direct and alternating electric currents), innocent people infected — often deliberately — with terrible diseases that were left untreated in the name of science, Nazi atrocities, and the torturous psychological experiments that helped form teenaged Theodore Kaczynski into the Unabomber. It’s worth reading because it’s true (by and large; Kean does indulge in the occasional speculation) but so many of these stories are harrowing and tragic. At the same time, as the author points out, we do need to consider where and why humans have gone down the wrong path and what can be done to help prevent these types of misdeeds from happening again. Some of the historical abuses this book chronicles may be unlikely to recur, but, as the appendix chapter discusses, technology opens up all sorts of new avenues for bad behavior and abuses of scientific knowledge.

The Icepick Surgeon is a sobering book but a fascinating one, and, more importantly, a needed record of scientific misconduct, both historically and in our modern time.

Published in JULY 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. The Icepick Surgeon masterfully guides the reader across two thousand years of history, beginning with Cleopatra’s dark deeds in ancient Egypt. The book reveals the origins of much of modern science in the transatlantic slave trade of the 1700s, as well as Thomas Edison’s mercenary support of the electric chair and the warped logic of the spies who infiltrated the Manhattan Project. But the sins of science aren’t all safely buried in the past. Many of them, Kean reminds us, still affect us today. We can draw direct lines from the medical abuses of Tuskegee and Nazi Germany to current vaccine hesitancy, and connect icepick lobotomies from the 1950s to the contemporary failings of mental-health care. Kean even takes us into the future, when advanced computers and genetic engineering could unleash whole new ways to do one another wrong. Unflinching, and exhilarating to the last page, The Icepick Surgeon fuses the drama of scientific discovery with the illicit thrill of a true-crime tale. With his trademark wit and precision, Kean shows that, while science has done more good than harm in the world, rogue scientists do exist, and when we sacrifice morals for progress, we often end up with neither.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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4 comments

  1. one of my favorite non-fiction authors. Haven’t picked this up (maybe yet) for those issues you noted re the content. But if anyone could do this well, it would be Kean

    • I thought of you several times while I was reading this, because it reminded me of when we were both reading Caesar’s Last Breath at the same time. This once certainly isn’t as much sheer fun as that one, but Kean still has found some fascinating and unusual stories.

  2. I teach Research Methods and Ethics to college students, so this sounds like something I should read and possibly consider assigning a chapter or two.

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