Elephant on acid, dog head grafts and a seesaw to revive the dead
Madness or genius? Magazine compiles list of most bizarre tests ever conducted in name of scientific inquiry
Ian Sample, science correspondent
Thursday November 1 2007
One Friday in August 1962 Warren Thomas, director of Lincoln Park Zoo in Oklahoma City, raised his rifle and took aim at Tusko the elephant. With a squeeze of the trigger he scored a direct hit on the animal's rump, firing a cartridge full of the hallucinogenic drug LSD into the animal's bloodstream.
The dose was 3,000 times what a human might take for recreational purposes, and the results were extraordinary. Tusko charged around and trumpeted loudly for a few minutes before keeling over dead.
Thomas and his colleagues maintained the mishap was the result of a scientific experiment to investigate whether LSD brought on an unusual condition in which elephants become aggressive and secrete a sticky fluid from their glands. In a report of the incident submitted to the US journal Science four months later, the team concluded: "It appears that the elephant is highly sensitive to the effects of LSD."
The case of Tusko the elephant is among 10 of the most bizarre experiments carried out in the quest for knowledge and reported in New Scientist magazine today. If there is a fine line between madness and genius, many of those involved firmly crossed it.
One experiment in the 1960s saw 10 soldiers board an aircraft for what they believed was a routine training mission from Fort Hunter Liggett airbase in California. After climbing to around 5,000 feet the plane suddenly lurched to one side and began to fall. Over the intercom, the pilot announced: "We have an emergency. An engine has stalled and the landing gear is not functioning. I'm going to attempt to ditch in the ocean."
While the soldiers faced almost certain death, a steward handed out insurance forms and asked the men to complete them, explaining it was necessary for the army to be covered if they died.
Little did the soldiers know they were completely safe. It was merely an experiment to find out how extreme stress affects cognitive ability, the forms serving as the test. Once the final soldier had completed his form the pilot announced: "Just kidding about that emergency folks!"
A later attempt to repeat the experiment with a new group of unwitting volunteers was ruined by one of the previous soldiers, who had penned a warning on a sickbag.
One of the most gruesome experiments to make New Scientist's list was performed by the Soviet surgeon Vladimir Demikhov. In 1954 he unveiled a two-headed dog, created in the lab by grafting the head, shoulders and front legs of a puppy on to the neck of a German shepherd dog. Journalists brought in to examine the creature noted how milk dribbled from the stump of the puppy's head when it attempted to lap milk. Occasionally, the two would fight, with the German shepherd trying to shake the puppy off, and the puppy retaliating by biting back.
The unfortunate creation lived for six days, though Dr Demikhov repeated the experiment 19 more times over the next 15 years, with the longest-lived lasting a month. Although the work was dismissed as a publicity stunt outside the Soviet Union, Dr Demikhov was credited with developing intricate surgical techniques that paved the way for the first human heart transplant.
Several attempts to unravel the mysteries of human nature also make the list. Clarence Leuba, a psychologist from Yellow Springs, Ohio, set out to discover whether laughing when tickled was a learned or spontaneous reaction, and commandeered his newborn son and later daughter into the study.
Then there was Lawrence LeShan, a researcher from Virginia who in 1942 stood in a room of sleeping boys repeating the phrase "My fingernails taste terribly bitter" to see if he could break their nailbiting habit while they slept.
In another experiment, a doctor called Stubbins Ffirth from Philadelphia decided to drink fresh vomit from yellow fever patients to prove it was not a contagious disease. He claimed to be right when he failed to become ill in 1804, but scientists have since shown yellow fever is extremely contagious, but has to be transmitted directly into the bloodstream, for example from a mosquito bite.
A similarly flawed experiment by Robert Cornish at the University of California in the 1930s attempted to bring dead animals back to life by tilting them up and down on a seesaw. The few that did stir back to life momentarily after death were severely brain damaged.
Predictably, sex also appears on the magazine's list of bizarre experiments. When investigating the sexual arousal of male turkeys researchers at Penn State University were impressed to see that the birds would attempt to mate with lookalike dummies. Piece by piece they removed parts of the dummy and found that the males were still highly aroused when presented with no more than a head on a stick.