Category Archives: Mad Doctors

Walter Freeman: Ice Pick Lobotomist

freeman_profile2Neurologist Walter Freeman strapped 29-year-old Ellen Ionesco to the operating table and delivered coma-inducing jolts of electroshock to her brain. Depressed, manic, violently suicidal, Ionesco was just the sort that was thought to benefit from traditional shock therapy—only Freeman wanted to do more than just shock her.1

Holding an ice pick to Ionesco’s tear duct, the doctor began chiseling into her eye socket. With an audible crack the thin layer of bone separating Ionesco’s brain gave way, and the ice pick sunk deep into her frontal lobe. Freeman then swished the metal rod back and forth, severing the neural pathways he believed were the root of Ionesco’s illness.1

This was in 1946 people. “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chicken’s” was tearing up the jukebox charts. Future sitcom legend Ed O’Neil was born amid thunderous hooting and canned applause. And Walter Freeman, who would go on to perform thousands of similar operations in the coming years, was well on his way to garnering one of the more sinister nicknames in modern medicine—The Ice Pick Lobotomist. Continue reading

Mad Scientist #19/20: Pierre Barbet and Frederick Zugibe

[Note: This article was republished with permission from the April 2015 edition of The Fortean Times. You can view a PDF of the original here. Or get a subscription…it’s the best!]

Frederick Zugibe PhotographMost amputated limbs wind up in the hospital incinerator, but Dr Pierre Barbet had other ideas. Having recently lopped off the arm of a “vigorous man,” the Parisian surgeon squared a large nail in the center of its palm and mounted it as one might the prized head of a slain beast.1

Barbet then tied a 100lb (45kg) weight to the elbow, causing the palm’s flesh to buckle and tear under its pull. After about 10 minutes, the initial wound had stretched into a gaping hole, and Barbet felt it was time to give the whole thing a good shake. What was left of the cadaverous palm burst open and fell to the floor, raising the question: was Jesus Christ really crucified with nails driven through the palms of his hand? Continue reading

Mad Scientist #18: Steven H. Pollock

Steven Pollock - Photo by Linda Dear

Photo by Linda Dear

What do you do when you find a bluish lump of fungus previously unknown to science, growing in your petri dish? If you’re Steven Pollock, you eat it, call your friend, and tell him you’ve discovered the one thing that’s eluded men of obscurity for millennia. I am talking of course about the philosopher’s stone—key to the universe—elixir of life—the ultimate essence of all things. In suburban San Antonio of all places. But there’s one quality the Ancients forgot—it gets you really, really high.1 Continue reading

Mad Scientist #17: Robert Cornish

Cornish demonstrates how he would revive a humanMarch 1934. The groan of creaking wood fills Dr. Robert Cornish’s laboratory as the rocking teeterboard strains under Lazarus’ dead weight. Rocking provides a crude form a circulation—a weak substitute for Lazarus’ heart, which has stopped beating.1

With an urgency more commonly found among the living, the Berkeley-based doctor plunges a brew of adrenaline, liver extract, gum arabic, and blood into the corpse’s thigh.1 He then puffs bursts of oxygen into Lazarus’ gaping mouth as the rocking board slowly draws the solution up and down the body.1

A leg twitch—a gasp—an unmistakable heartbeat.1

The wooden teeterboard, typically used to launch circus acrobats to death-defying heights, is being employed by Cornish to raise something far more dangerous—the dead. Continue reading

Mad Scientist #13/14: Vladimir Demikhov and Robert White

Robert White and Vladimir DemikhovOkay, so you’ve got the job interview of your life tomorrow, just one small problem: your kidney is failing. Also your spleen has ruptured. You’re experiencing necrosis of the liver, critical hyperkalemia, and, why not, septic shock. In short, you’re dying…or are you?

With your last ounce of strength you set out and grab the sturdiest, most passed-out homeless man you can find and drag him to the nearest experimental surgery clinic that’s open late. Plunking his rum-soaked body on the counter so as to startle the triage nurse you yell, “I need a full body transplant! Stat!” Continue reading

Mad Scientist #12: Giles Brindley

The talk began, as all great urology lectures should, with slides of the speaker’s own penis. The erection plastered over the screen, explained Dr. Giles Brindley, was caused by smooth muscle relaxant injected directly into his shaft. It’s a method so powerful, he continued, that a single dose can make an impotent man stay hard for hours. In fact, concealed behind the podium, Brindley was hard right now. He shot up in his hotel room beforehand.

Skeptical? The audience sure was. This was 1983 by the way. Viagra, and the days when aging senators and soccer legends spoke candidly about their struggles with ED, were still years off. So the elderly professor leapt from behind the podium and dropped his slacks, revealing “a long, thin, clearly erect [achem] penis.”1

Now, he said, “I’d like to give some of the audience the opportunity to confirm the degree of tumescence.”1 Continue reading

Mad Scientist #5: Paracelsus (pt. 2) – Paracelsus’ Homunculus

It is the project of the mad scientist, whether he knows it or not, to extract all that is crass, hidden, and horrifying, and flay it mercilessly before the light of science. Doing so does not strip the world of her wonder. On the contrary—it breathes new life into the magic of old. To witness an account of this process in action, we need look no further than the homunculus of Paracelsian lore.

If you have access to some vials, semen, and significant quantities of human blood and putrefied horse manure, you may want to try Paracelsus’ recipe on your own time: Continue reading

Mad Scientist #5: Paracelsus (pt. 1) – Science and Magic

All the universities have less experience than my beard. The down on my neck is more learned than my antagonists. You must follow my footsteps. I shall not go in yours. Not one of your professors will find a cover so well hidden that the dogs will come and lift them by the legs and defile them. I shall become a monarch, mine will be the monarchy which I shall rule to make you gird up your loins!

Every historian who wants to prove science emerged neatly as a reaction against medieval magic and mysticism, will at some point be faced with the paradox that is Paracelsus. One part proto-renaissance physician, one part medieval magus, this so-called “Luther of Medicine” harrowingly straddled the light and dark worlds of 16th century Europe. If single-handedly, he crossed the Rubicon into modern medicine, chemistry, toxicology, and psychiatry, he also bore the full force of their birth pangs. Scorned by the establishment in his own time, and obscured by history since, Paracelsus is never quite where you look for him. But root him out, and his rich hoard of alchemical treasures is yours for the taking. For science, as anyone who looks deep into Paracelsus’ eye will see, is at heart a form of magick! Continue reading

Mad Scientist #4: Sigmund Rascher

Well, you do not know what you have even suffered.
–an anonymous inmate at Dachau, addressing a survivor of one of Dr. Rascher’s infamous freezing experiments.1

Okay, so you’re a Nazi paratrooper on a sensitive recon mission for the Luftwaffe in Norway. Because of the secrecy of your operation, you must deploy from a height of 45,000 ft. Because of the weather, it’s not safe to open your parachute above 4,000 ft. Your commanding officer is expecting you at a base outside Narwik by sundown tomorrow, but you never arrive. In fact, you’re dead before you even hit the ground.

The physiology of manned flight has been the subject of rigorous investigation within the aviation medicine community. Yet research ethics and a general regard for human life have prevented scientists from studying the physiology of a man plummeting to his own death. That is of course, until the Nazi Dr. Sigmund Rascher came along. Continue reading