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The Icepick Surgeon by Sam Kean

The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science by Sam Kean covers twelve detailed stories of science gone criminal. The stories are roughly chronological and build on one another. None of these scientists can be painted as purely evil. But their deeds go down in the annals of history as the worst of the worst.

Icepick Surgeon by Sam Kean

Piracy: The Buccaneer Biologist

Kicking off the book, we have the story of William Dampier, a sailor turned pirate. He was a navigational genius and superb naturalist. This story discusses the ethics of stealing life-saving seeds for medicine (biopiracy) and more. Dampier’s escapades inspired both Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Slavery: The Corruption of the Flycatcher

Here Kean points out how naturalists hitched rides on slave trade ships in order to gain access to uncharted places. This chapter focuses on Englishman Henry Smeathman, a late 1700s naturalist of whom I never heard of before.

The greater point of this section is how even those opposed to slavery, benefited by the economics of it. New discoveries occurred in these slave colonies but at great cost to morality and humanity.

Grave-Robbing: Jekyll & Hyde, Hunter & Knox

William Hare and William Burke became serial murderers to provide bodies for anatomists. Their method of smothering near-dead victims became known as “burking”. John Hunter was an acclaimed anatomist. His home and the basics of his life were Robert Louis Stevenson’s model for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Murder: The Professor and the Janitor

This chapter focuses on the murder of George Parkman. John White Webster, a Harvard professor, allegedly killed Parkman to avoid paying a debt. But the story is more a continuation of the battle of grave-robbing from the previous chapter.

Animal Cruelty: The War of the Currents

This chapter includes the sickening torture of animals to test electricity. It exposes Thomas Edison for his less-than stellar morals. This was a chapter I was happy to get over with.

Sabotage: The Bone Wars

This was the battle between two paleontologists: Marsh and Cope. Each discovered many new species through fossils and pushed interest in dinosaurs as well as evolutionary science. But their hatred for each other made it much harder on both teams.

Oath-Breaking: Ethically Impossible

This chapter covers Nazi doctors who did terrible experiments on prisoners but gleaned useful, albeit sometimes questionable, treatments for various conditions. The question is this: is it ethical to use the data to treat people now? And how far across the line are we willing to go when it helps “the greater good”?

Ambition: Surgery of the Soul

The namesake of the book, this chapter covers the “icepick surgeon”. More to the point, lobotomies. No other crime of science has stirred so much in the hearts and minds of people as removing the frontal lobes of psychiatric patients. The difficult part of this whole situation was that in dealing with desperate people, often those presumed “untreatable” getting any positive results looks wonderful. 

Espionage: The Variety Act

Spies and espionage have always been interesting to me. This chapter is less so about science (although the goal was to steal secrets to atomic bombs) and more about the mindset of those that would betray their country and how they can justify the betrayal.

Torture: The White Whale

The case of the Unabomber is discussed in this chapter. Kean shows how a combination of Ted Kaczynski’s upbringing, high IQ, and psychological torture led him to commit acts of terrorism.

Malpractice: Sex, Power, and Money

All the stories in this book are disturbing but this one was exceptionally so. It involves the disgusting case of a doctor botching a basic procedure and then forcing a boy to “become a girl”. The case is really poignant for today’s debate on gender and Kean does an excellent job defending the millions of years of biology that led to definite differences between male and female.

Fraud: Superwoman

Annie Dookhan is practically the only woman covered in this book but her crimes are almost the worst. Her blatant and ignored fraud put countless innocent people in jail as well as upset the judicial system to a high degree. While her behavior wasn’t aggressive or violent, it was no less evil.

Conclusion and Appendix

Here Kean goes off the rails a bit with a lot of future crime speculation. I find it fun to imagine what technological dilemmas we will face. But a lot of it becomes more science fiction than actual science. If you hold biblical vitrues to the degree they deserve, than murder on Mars is the same as murder in Chicago, regardless of legal jurisdiction.

Overall, The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds was a fun page turner. Each section has connections to the others and together provides a lot of ideas to explore further. Scientists and doctors hold a special place in the public mind. We are taught to respect, even revere them as intelligent and infallible. However, this is not always the case.

When we throw around statements like “trust the science” we need to remember to have our guard up. Even when there is a consensus we need to understand who is forming the scientific conclusion and if there are other motives behind.

Humans are humans and there will always be those that are not as scrupulous as they should be.