Weird History
176.7k readers

Distressing Experiments That Keep Us Up At Night

May 24, 2021 176.7k views10 items

Humanity has strived for knowledge since the beginning of time, and for just as long, we have shown that we can be a senselessly cruel lot. Gaining wisdom has served as a convenient alibi for massive cruelties inflicted upon societies as well as small cruelties done on the most helpless. The massive war crimes that amounted to torture disguised as medical experiments have been well documented.

The experiments here are on a smaller scale, usually done with real research in mind, but are upsetting nonetheless. Some were done under the ethical guidelines of the day, but are reprehensible in our modern eyes. Others were a betrayal of trust from our own government that used its citizens as disposable test subjects. All are distressing studies that keep us up at night.

  • Photo: Vibha C Kashyap / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    The 'Little Albert' Experiment Tried To Condition Fear Into A Toddler

    The "Little Albert" experiment was carried out by John B. Watson and his graduate student, Rosalie Rayner, at Johns Hopkins University around 1920 and attempted to condition a response in a child. It was similar to Pavlov's dog conditioning experiments, but with a human child subject. 

    Little Albert, a 9-month-old, was given a white lab rat to play with. Behind him, a steel bar was struck with a hammer each time he touched the rat, making a loud, startling noise that caused him to cry. Eventually, Albert would cry upon only seeing the rat. With further conditioning, his distress carried over to other furry objects, such as a rabbit, a dog, a seal-skin coat, and even a Santa Claus mask.

    Looked at today, the experiment was not only unethical, but the researchers also had no objective way to interpret the child's reactions. Little Albert's true identity is still debated.

  • Photo: Willem van de Poll / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    'The Monster Study' Tried To Belittle Orphans Into Stuttering

    The "Monster Study" received its nickname from people who were horrified by its monstrous premise. University of Iowa speech expert Wendell Johnson and graduate student Mary Tudor conducted a stuttering experiment on 22 orphan children in 1939. Johnson believed that stuttering was a learned behavior due to external forces, such as parents criticizing their children's speech.

    To test this theory, Johnson tried to induce stuttering in his test group of orphans. The 22 perfectly fluent children were split into two groups; one received positive reinforcement, while the other was given negative. The negative group was belittled for every small speech imperfection. They were told their speech was not normal and that they were beginning to stutter. In the end, the experiment did not produce any stutterers, but it did inflict lifelong psychological trauma

  • A NASA-Funded Experiment To Communicate With Dolphins Involved LSD, Sex, And Dolphin Suicide

    In the 1960s, Margaret Lovatt was part of NASA-funded research to attempt to communicate with dolphins. During her time at the St. Thomas lab, she grew emotionally close to one of the subjects, a dolphin named Peter. As part of the experiment, the dolphins were dosed with LSD. Human-dolphin communication was ultimately not very successful.

    Lovatt attempted to teach Peter English as part of a broader series of experiments. Occasionally Peter would be distracted by his burgeoning sexual urges, which Lovatt explained were easier to simply deal with by satisfying him manually, rather than interrupting the experiments to let Peter visit with the two female dolphins at the lab. After a time, funding dried up, Lovatt left the lab, and Peter was moved to a small tank elsewhere. He eventually chose to stop coming to the surface to breathe, in effect choosing to end his own life.



  • The First Blood Transfusions In Humans Occurred Before We Knew About Blood Types And Involved Animal Blood

    Jean-Baptiste Denys performed the first documented blood transfusion on a human in 1667. Given that this was years before blood types were even known, it's safe to say a good amount of guesswork was involved in his experiments. A 15-year-old boy had been bled out, a somewhat common medical procedure of the time used to get rid of bad blood and promote health. But he had bled too much and was suffering from blood loss, so Denys used his new transfusion technique to transfer the blood of a lamb into the boy. Somehow, he lived. 

    Emboldened by this success, Denys next tried a transfusion on a mentally ill man named Antoine Mauroy, theorizing that replacing his bad blood with the good blood of an innocent calf might cure him. Mauroy immediately began to have a negative reaction, experiencing a burning sensation and sweating profusely. Denys stopped, but later attempted the transfusion two more times; Mauroy soon expired. A court decided that arsenic had somehow killed Mauroy, but even so, no known blood transfusions were again attempted until the 19th century.