Halloween is here, and as you may have noticed, we got pretty into the spirit this year. We talked about the science behind creepy clowns and the non-science behind ghost-hunting, all the while making science-related puns and quips. Sometimes, though, it’s the science itself that gets scary. As we’ve done once before, let’s take a look at some of the scientists who ensured “mad scientist” isn’t just a clichéd Halloween costume.



Barry Marshall Gives Himself an Ulcer



Dr. Barry Marshall, a medical internist in Australia, was disturbed to find patients dying from something other than the usual terrible things that kill people in Australia: stomach ulcers. This was even more upsetting to him, because he and his buddy Robin Warren knew what caused stomach ulcers, a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori.




Just one of many, many, many things that will kill you in Australia



The problem was that the stuffy medical establishment of the day was sure that ulcers were caused by nothing more than stress. They sure weren’t going to listen to some internist go on about any H. pylori-zippity-zop-flarblegarb. They were gastroenterologists, dammit, not book-learners.




You would think people who stared at the anus all day would be open to change



People were somewhat dismissive of Marshall and Warren’s ideas about H. pylori, so Barry Marshall took the logical next step and drank a petri dish full of bacteria that he harvested from the guts of a man with severe stomach ulcers.




Logic has a slightly different meaning in Australia



The above sentence was not hyperbole. Barry Marshall extracted stomach bacteria from a man with stomach ulcers, cultured it in a petri-dish, then drank it, because he thought this would make the medical community take him more seriously.




“I can see from your faces that you now have complete faith in my reasoning” – Barry Marshall



Sure enough, Marshall developed symptoms within a few days, including nausea, vomiting, and bad breath. He got sicker over time, and biopsied his own stomach to show H. pylori had cultured in his stomach, before finally taking antibiotics to rid him ulcer symptoms that, again, he intentionally consumed the bacteria to develop.




“I’m a great doctor” – Barry Marshall



Marshall published his results in the Medical Journal of Australia, presumably in the “Letters from Nut-jobs” section. In fairness, his “research” changed the way ulcers are treated, and also confirmed the role of H. pylori in developing stomach cancer. Marshall and his old buddy Warren were awarded the Nobel Prize for these contributions in 2005, possibly because the prize committee were afraid of what Marshall would drink if he wasn’t properly acknowledged.




“This is 100% pure rectal discharge. I swear to God I’ll drink it.” – Barry Marshall



Charles Hofling Orders Nurses to Overdose Patients



You’ve probably heard of Stanley Milgram’s obedience studies, where he ordered people to “shock” strangers on the other side of a wall. The idea was to see how many people would knowingly harm another person at the command of an authority figure. Milgram found most people obeyed orders to administer shocks even after they thought the other person may have died.




Who could defy this charmer?



The one thing that made these results easier to swallow was that the participants had no idea what was happening – they weren’t seasoned people-zappers, so how could they know if their shock-ee was actually in any danger? What would be really scary is if this type of obedience existed among people who knew full well what they were doing, like medical professionals or something…




That was called foreshadowing, by the way



Charles Hofling said nuts to all that “untrained amateurs” noise. He ran a study to see whether he could get professional nurses to administer lethal amounts of a drug to unconscious patients. He would show Milgram who could come up with the most disturbing obedience study!




Suck it, Milgram



Hofling set up an experiment where a “doctor” called some real-life nurses and asked them to administer a drug called “Astroten” to a patient. The doctor, who was unknown to the nurses, said he was in a hurry and would sign the drug authorization forms later. Oh, and the doctor asked the nurses to administer 20 mg, even though label on the pills clearly said that the maximum dosage was 10 mg.




“Meh, they’re more like guidelines, anyway”



Now, this broke three rules in the nursing world: they aren’t supposed to accept instructions over the phone, they aren’t supposed to administer unauthorized drugs, and they sure as hell aren’t supposed to give someone twice the maximum dosage. So surely, these highly trained medical professionals in charge of peoples’ lives wouldn’t just callously toss aside years of training and listen to some doctor they had never heard of before, right?




That was called a mislead



Wrong. 21 of the 22 nurses in the study obeyed the doctor’s orders and administered the drug, which, because it wasn’t a placebo, means 21 research assistants actually died in this study.




Totally worth it for the advancement in scientific knowledge



Just kidding, they were placebos. Even still, it’s pretty frightening to know that the nurse in charge of keeping you alive can be outwitted by anyone who calls up claiming to be a doctor.




“I can’t see him, so I don’t know that he’s not a doctor”



Between this study and the possibility of the July Effect, maybe it’s best avoid the hospital altogether.



José Delgado Controls Minds



We’ve written about the time America tried out some mind control before, but they really never got it going, mostly because of all the LSD going around. That’s not the case for one José Delgado, though. José finished what he started.




He can do whatever he puts your mind to



José became fascinated by the human brain at a young age, which is a sentence that should sound warning bells in any psychiatrist’s mind. He studied real hard and got a scholarship to Yale, where he worked in the physiology department. All of the previous information is about to look super boring, because after he got to Yale, he learned how to control minds.




José Delgado, hard at work in his lab



José figured out that if he planted electrodes in a brain and could send radio signals to that electrode, he could simulate regular brain activity and trigger certain movements and emotions. He started with cats, but quickly worked his way up to monkeys and other animals. Here he is stopping a charging bull in its tracks.




He didn’t stop there. High off his victorious matador debut, Delgado decided to switch to humans. He modified his electrode-radio signal contraption for human use. By the way, he called his mind control device the “stimoceiver”.




His first name, “slave-maker”, got negative reviews from the funding committee



The stimoceiver could, to quote Delgado, “produce pleasant sensations, elation, deep, thoughtful concentration, odd feelings, super relaxation, colored visions, and other responses.” He could also illicit “aversive stimuli”, like pain. No way that could be used for evil.




I’m in no way reminded of that seen in X-Men 2, where Professor X almost telepathies everyone to death



To be fair, Delgado’s work went a long way to understanding brain physiology, and he worked to help patients with schizophrenia and epilepsy, but it’s also rumored that his lab was run by an army of grad students he mind-controlled into being zombie research assistants. Now, that rumor is almost certainly not true, and in fact I can confirm that I just made it up. Even still, I’ll leave this quote from a patient of Delgado’s here and let you come to your own conclusions:


“I guess, doctor, that your electricity is stronger than my will”.


Which sounds like a line from an 8o’s love song



Sounds like the guy was stimoceiving, indeed.



Dan wants to wish everyone a safe and happy Halloween, although that might just be the stimoceiver talking. Email him at Dan[at]scienceninjas.ca to see a topic covered here.


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Dan Re