Sunday, July 25, 2021

With Benefit Of Hindsight Dr. Walter Freeman Couldn't Hold A Candle To Dr. Anthony Fauci...,

undark |  Walter Freeman was itching for a shortcut. Since the 1930s, the Washington, D.C. neurologist had been drilling through the skulls of psychiatric patients to scoop out brain chunks in the hopes of calming their mental torment. But Freeman decided he wanted something simpler than a bone drill — he wanted a rod-like implement that could pass directly through the eye socket to penetrate the brain. He’d then swirl the rod around to scramble the patient’s frontal lobes, the brain regions that control higher-level thinking and judgment.

Rummaging in his kitchen drawer, Freeman found the perfect tool: a sharp pick of the sort used to shear ice from large blocks. He knew his close colleague, surgeon James Watts, wouldn’t sanction his new approach, so he closed the office door and did his “ice-pick lobotomies” — more formally, transorbital lobotomies — without Watts’ knowledge. 

Though the amoral scientist has been a familiar trope since Victor Frankenstein, we seldom consider what sets these technicians on the path to iniquity. Journalist Sam Kean’s “The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science,” helps fill that void, describing how dozens of promising scientists broke bad throughout history — and arguing that the better we understand their moral decay, the more prepared we’ll be to quash the next Freeman. “Understanding what good and evil look like in science — and the path from one to the other — is more vital than ever,” Kean writes. “Science has its own sins to answer for.”  

Expert at spinning historical science yarns — his last book, “The Bastard Brigade,” was about the failed Nazi atom bomb — Kean presents a scientific rogues’ gallery that’s both entertaining and chilling. Naturalist William Dampier, who influenced Charles Darwin’s work, resorted to piracy to fund his fieldwork in the 17th century. He joined a band of buccaneers that seized gems, scads of valuable silk, and stocks of perfume in raids throughout Central and South America.

A century later, celebrated Scottish surgeon John Hunter worked with grave robbers to obtain bodies so he could study human anatomy. His colleagues emulated his approach, and the pipeline from corpse-snatchers to anatomists continued for decades. The practice was tacitly accepted because it could yield valuable insights — Hunter discovered the tear ducts and the olfactory nerve, among other things — but the human toll was horrifying nonetheless. At public hangings, so-called sack-‘em-up men “sometimes even yanked people off the gibbet who weren’t quite dead yet,” Kean writes. “They’d merely passed out from lack of air — only to pop awake later on the dissection table.”

In a way, though, the gruesome endpoints Kean describes — the scrambled brains, the ransacked ships, the deathbeds — are the least interesting part of his story. They mostly confirm philosopher Simone Weil’s impression that real-world evil is “gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring.”

What’s more compelling is Kean’s take on how the scientists justified their actions. They pushed aside thoughts of collateral damage — the lives they disrespected and damaged — by rationalizing that their contributions outweighed any harm they were doing. Freeman’s work at an early 20th-century psychiatric asylum convinced him of the unalloyed good of calming agitated patients via lobotomy. “The ward could be brightened when curtains and flowerpots were no longer in danger of being used as weapons,” Freeman observed.

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