Cracked has another list of interesting historical figures who did some bizarre things that led to the world as we know it. For example, we assume that the food we eat doesn't have a lot of dangerous additives, but it wasn't so before chemist Harvey Wiley had a crazy idea about testing food.
In 1902, Department of Agriculture chief chemist Harvey Wiley got $5,000 from Congress to figure out what was up with the preservatives getting stuffed into food. Only a few years earlier, soldiers fighting in the Spanish-American War complained that their tinned beef tasted like embalming fluid and smelled like human cadavers -- and they would know, on both counts. Soldiers suspected that the meat was laced with boric acid to hide the fact that it was as putrid as the word "putrid" when you say it like this: "peeeeewtrid."
So Wiley gets his $5,000 and sets up a lab full of chimps to systematically study the effects of eating a diet of food filled with additives. WRONG. He asks a regular crew of volunteers from the Department of Agriculture to ingest poisoned food every day for five years -- just to see what happens. Despite having jobs, salaries, and access to regular not-poisoned food, a dozen otherwise sane men volunteered to eat meals laced with borax, salicylic acid, sulfuric acid, sodium benzoate, and formaldehyde. And the meals were just the beginning of the crazy: Each man also had his poop and pee tested daily to see what was coming out. And each volunteer promised not to hold the government liable, no matter what kind of sludge came out of his tear ducts when he cried himself to sleep at night.
He actions led to the birth of the FDA, which we depend on. Other stories tell of the crazy guys who gave us the our dictionary, rubber, and forensic psychology, with the expected hyperbole and language warning from Cracked. Link