Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence. Reader discretion is advised.
Snap. That’s the sound of a 19th-century medical student at a public hanging, ripping a body down from the rope before the hung man’s heart has stopped beating.
Their goal wasn’t to save the man’s life. Instead, it was to harvest his body for human medical experiments.
In his new book The Icepick Surgeon, writer Sam Kean explores such unethical undertakings in the name of medicine—from the simply salacious to slaughter done for science. And he does it in great, annotated detail.
He recounts when “resurrectionists” (a.k.a. grave robbers) stopped raiding the cemetery for corpses to use in medical schools and started raiding the streets—and killing people. While they started with easy targets—those who were homeless or drunk—they moved on to more lucrative ones: children (bought by the inch) and women in the late stages of pregnancy.
The book includes stories on Nazi “medical” experiments, the Tuskegee syphilis study and Cleopatra’s alleged crimes against prisoners and pregnant maidservants. And of course, there’s the book’s namesake, a neurologist famous for his icepick lobotomies.
A&E True Crime spoke with Kean about what made him want to time-travel through historical horror and whether the barbarous deeds of the past actually advanced scientific knowledge and saved later lives.
You’ve written a lot about science and history before—some of it violent—but never something quite this gruesome. What made you choose this topic?
I’ve always been interested in true crime—sort of that weird thrill you get. And I write a lot of science stuff, too. The combination of the two really appealed to me.
In the cases in the book, it wasn’t incidental that these were scientists—they committed a crime in pursuit of knowledge. We usually consider the pursuit of knowledge a good thing; it’s what drives the scientific field. But in these cases, they got so obsessed with some topic, they trampled ethical boundaries. The way their knowledge came about was evil.
Besides the Nazis, do you think that anyone involved in the torturous experiments you share would have been a murderer outside of their ‘work’?
Obviously, the Nazis stood out as the sadistic star of medical experiments. Maybe in some of the other cases, people did come off as a little sadistic. But I think in most cases, they thought they were helping people and that history would look at them as being in the right.
One example of people who transitioned into killing was Burke and Hare, who started as 19th-century grave robbers and then became serial murderers. (There’s even a method of killing called “burking.”) What was their story?
They had murdered people to sell their bodies to an anatomist. But I was fascinated with the whole industry around this. There’s this larger issue of ‘What should [scientists] have done at the time?’ The doctors did need bodies to dissect and study to cure diseases. But people just did not want to give their bodies to science—which they had every right not to do. But the lurid story of Burke and Hare, to me, was a way into that larger dilemma.
Burke and Hare were obviously killing for profit. But in this era, medical students were desperate for bodies for their own education.
At public hangings, they run to get the bodies off the rope before the person was even dead. There was such a hurry to get them and to get them dissected; the competition between medical schools was so stiff for those bodies.
Some of the offending doctors receiving suspiciously obtained corpses certainly knew they came from murders. They were also undeniably talented and made medical advancements.
John Hunter is someone in the book who was really tough to deal with ethically because he was kind of running wild. He dissected something like 2,000 bodies; he would have gotten very few of them legally at the time. But he really made a lot of amazing discoveries about how the body was put together—he discovered tear ducts and the olfactory nerve. And that’s the basic, fundamental knowledge you need to help people, to cure disease. Before this, it would have been like asking a car mechanic to fix the car when they’d never looked under the hood before.
Because of John Hunter, we could overthrow these old hoary notions that had been coming from the ancient Greeks, these thousands-of-years-old ideas and start on a more scientific path. He 100 percent deserves a lot of credit for that. He’s why we restart hearts with electricity, why we have artificial insemination. But even people at the time, other doctors, were horrified at some of the things that he did and his vulgar manners.
[Editor’s Note: Hunter was Robert Lewis Stevenson’s inspiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.]
The Nazis, who you have written about before in ‘The Bastard Brigade,’ are of course notorious for their ‘medical’ experiments. But were any of them actually medical?
Yeah, there were a few. The vast majority of Nazi experiments deserve to be buried and forgotten. There was no medical value to trying to change someone’s eye color or sew identical twins together to see what would happen. These are just barbaric experiments, that if they were doing this today to animals, we would object to it.
But there were a few cases where they learned things. They were simulating situations where people, say, were dumped in a cold ocean after having to eject from their plane, and they had severe hypothermia. What’s the best way to revive those people? But when the Nazis held prisoners in ice baths against their will (no one volunteered for this) they found that slowly warming someone to avoid shock, giving people liquor, putting them in warming blankets—things like that just did not work.
And this is a real dilemma. Because again, these people did not volunteer, many of them died. This was torture. But it did end up being a dilemma for a doctor at the time: Do you listen to the conventional wisdom, where they gathered the evidence ethically? Or you go with knowledge from the Nazi experiments, which were barbaric and unethical, but seem to show a more effective way to revive people? I don’t think there’s ever a good way to resolve this issue.
And then you have something like the Tuskegee syphilis study—done at a prestigious institution, with exclusively African American men as subjects—and it seemed useless because we already knew that penicillin worked.
Essentially in the 1940s, when they got penicillin, that’s when the experiments [which had started in 1932] really turned dark and terrible, where they were essentially not helping these people. Before that, there were individual cases where they looked at the options at the time: to let syphilis fester or give patients arsenic or mercury. And between those, neither option is very good.
The early work was about what would happen over the long-term—whether it was worth giving people these heavy metals. But the fact that they kept doing this from the 1940s all the way to the 1970s—that is where it really turns dark and shows they didn’t really care about the individuals in this study.
One of the more scandalous things is that they were publishing papers on it. With other cases in the book, I talked about doctors hiding their experiments. But here, there was really no sense of shame. And a lot of people in the medical and the epidemiological communities simply shrugged; nothing about it stood out to them as being awful.
The title of your book references Walter Jackson Freeman II, who did icepick lobotomies, surgeries that severed the neural pathways of the brain’s frontal lobe. Sometimes he performed two at a time to show off his ambidextrousness. Did he truly believe he was helping people?
Oh, yes. He was fanatically convinced he was ‘The Savior’. He was going to clear out every single insane asylum in the United States. At the end of his life, when he had been banned from doing the surgery at every hospital he’d ever worked at, he was absolutely convinced that history was going to look back at him as a hero.