5 Science Experiments Gone Wrong

Every day, scientists are striving to make our lives better and to better understand our lives through a range of experiments on just about every subject. Unfortunately, not all of these projects work out so well. These five experiments have all gone wrong, whether due to the errors of the scientists, the unexpected behavior of the subjects or because the public reaction destroyed what may have actually been an advantageous advance in the field.

Tripping Elephants On Parade

Image via http2007 [Flickr]

While many test animals are killed in the name of research, many of them are at least being used to investigate potentially life-saving drugs. Perhaps the saddest and most spectacular failure of any animal-based experiment occurred in 1962, when Tusko the elephant (not the one pictured) was given LSD simply for the sake of seeing how the magnificent beast would react to such a substance.

Unfortunately, the researchers, Louis Jolyon West and Chester M. Pierce, had no idea how much LSD it would take to dose an elephant. Rather than erroring on the side of safety, the doctors decided that they didn’t want to have to do the experiment again just because they underdosed the elephant the first time. They ended up deciding to give Tusko 297 milligrams, which is about 3000 times the dosage a human takes, despite the fact that an elephant weighs about 90 times more than the average human.

After being dosed, Tusko immediately started running around in his pen and soon lost control of his movements, eventually collapsing to the ground and going into seizures. To counteract the LSD, the doctors gave the elephant 2,800 milligrams of an antipsychotic. The drug reduced his seizures slightly, but didn’t stop them. After another hours, the doctors decided to give Tusko a barbiturate to calm him down, but it didn’t help. He died a few minutes later.

Two other elephants were later dosed with the drug and suffered no ill effects. Ultimately, the doctors that dosed Tusko summed up their experiment in Science by saying, simply, “It appears that the elephant is highly sensitive to the effects of LSD.” Even so, it is still unclear whether or not Tusko died from the acid or a combination of the three drugs given to him that day.

The Monster Study

The effects of positive vs. negative reinforcement have fascinated scientists and parents for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, testing on a group of unsuspecting orphans isn’t the best way to find out. In 1939, Doctor Wendell Johnson of the University of Iowa and his assistant, Mary Tudor, selected 22 children from an orphanage in Iowa. Ten of the children had stutters and the rest spoke just fine.

The stutterers were put in two groups, group IA that was to use positive reinforcement and other, group IB, that was to receive negative reinforcement. The non-stutterers were also broken into two groups, group IIB, that was told they spoke fine, and group IIA, who were told they were starting to stutter and needed to avoid making mistakes at any cost. The goal was to get those in group IA to stop stuttering and those in group IIA to start stuttering.

The impact on group IIA was exactly what the doctor had hoped for. The entire group started falling behind on their school work. The children started to second-guess their speech abilities and many stopped talking at all. One girl ran away shortly after the experiment ended.

While Mary Tudor visited the orphanage three times after the experiment was over, attempting to convince the children that they didn’t have any speech problems, the damage was already done. Although none of the kids became stutterers, many of the children retained speech problems their entire life and most were reluctant to speak. In 2007, six of these children were awarded $925,000 in a lawsuit against the state for the university’s role in the experiment. The study has since been dubbed “The Monster Study” by the public and scientists alike who were disgusted with the doctor’s methods.

The Baby Born A Chimp

Image via BoingBoing

There have been ample stories of human children being raised by other species and eventually becoming more like that animal than an actual human. If the process could go one way, Winthrop Kellogg was sure that it could also go the other, particularly if the animal involved was one of our closest genetic cousins.

In 1931, Kellogg received a grant for his experiment and the timing couldn’t be better –his wife just had a baby boy, David. This would give them the unique opportunity to raise a baby chimp, named Gua, right along side a human baby. It didn’t take long for the babes to bond and become best friends. Kellogg and his wife took impeccable notes on their two “children” noting their physical changes, emotions and how they scored on small intelligence tests. The chimp scored notably higher on the intelligence tests due the fact that the species matures faster than human babies. Gua picked up quite a few human behaviors, such as walking upright and eating with a spoon, but she failed to learn how to speak and learn simple repetition games, like patty cake. Her emotions were also much less predictable and inclined to change at the drop of a hat.

Unfortunately, the experiment really started to go wrong when little David started to become more chimplike than Gua became humanlike. He only learned a few simple words and often took to making chimp howls when he wanted something. After only nine months, the Kelloggs gave up on Gua, concerned that David would fail to grow up like a normal human child. In the years since this project, plenty of people have adopted chimps as babies, proving beyond a doubt that the animals can never act completely human –even if they are adorable in overalls.

Yellow Fever Fever

Doctor Stubbins Ffirth observed that yellow fever was prominent during the summer, but receded as winter approached and made the mistaken conclusion that this meant the disease was not contagious. The fact that he never caught the disease after constant exposure to patients with the malady further inspired him.

In order to prove the disease was non-contagious, Ffirth decided he needed to expose himself to all types of bodily fluids secreted by yellow fever victims. He drank the vomit of the victims, he injected it into his veins, he dripped it into his eyes and he inhaled the fumes from the vomit. Through it all, he never did manage to contract the disease. Rather than admitting that he made his point or moving on to testing on other people, Ffirth realized there were far more body fluids for him to experiment with. He used blood, urine, saliva and perspiration. Even after all of these tests, his still managed to resist the disease.

Unfortunately, Ffirth failed to take into account the different stages of the disease. His samples all came from persons who were in the late stages of the malady, and were, thus, no longer contagious. Had he experimented with samples from people who only recently contracted the disease, his results likely would have been a whole lot different.

As for the observation that the disease disappeared during the winter months? He was right about that, just wrong about the cause. Yellow fever is caused by a RNA virus that is spread by mosquitoes. That’s why it was so much more common during the humid summers on the East Coast. Fortunately, before word of Ffirth’s research spread, locals believed the disease was spreading through the waterways and Philadelphia introduced a closed water system that helped eliminate cisterns and barrels full of water that served as mosquito breeding grounds during the summer.

A Baby In A Box

Image via Silly Rabbit [Wikipedia]

This is perhaps the only science experiment in this list that went totally right –up until the idea was released to the public. Doctor Fredric Skinner had a lot of trouble bending down into his baby’s crib to pick her up. When his wife became pregnant with a second child, he worked hard to develop a more comfortable and elegant solution. What he came up with was a “baby box.”

The box was about six feet tall and lifted the baby up about three feet high. The sleeping area was a shallow bin with a safety glass window that allowed it to see the outside world while keeping it safe. The box provided the baby with a heater, humidifier and an air filter so the baby always had fresh, warm air. It was also well-insulated to help keep out loud noises. Parents could lift the baby out of the device without back strain. The baby stayed warm, so it didn’t need clothes or blankets that could get tangled up and become a hazard. Plus, this also meant less laundry for the parents. The mattress was made of a sheet of canvas held in place by two rollers, so when it got dirty, they just had to roll it to reveal a new, clean section. All in all, the device had tons of benefits and the doctor’s baby responded to the device quite well.

Unfortunately, Skinner decided to bypass academic journals and send an announcement of his achievement through Ladies’ Home Journal. While the title of the piece he sent was “Baby Care Can Be Modernized,” editors decided to change it to “Baby In A Box.” This one little change was largely responsible for the public backlash against Skinner’s revolutionary idea. People accused the doctor of caging his child up like an animal, raising a child like a vegetable garden and gaining inspiration for his idea from a grocery freezer case.

While Skinner did want to run formal experiments comparing ten children who were raised with the box and ten children who were raised in a crib to see if either group had any disadvantages long term, the public outrage against his work led him to back off on his project. His own daughter did seem to come out just fine in the end, becoming a successful artist in London. Eventually, Skinner did get a manufacturing deal, selling a few hundred units of “The Air Crib,” but the head of the manufacturing company soon passed away, leaving the idea to die in the process.

Now, obviously, there are far more science projects gone wrong than just these. If you’ve heard any stories, feel free to share them in the comments. Or let us know what you think about the projects. Personally, I think the baby box is a great idea and I would love to have had one when I have a kid.

Sources: Elephants On Acid And Other Bizarre Experiments, Wikipedia #1, #2, #3, Listverse

Newest 5
Newest 5 Comments

@Jill That's a very fair point - thanks for following up. Animal physiology is important to keep in mind when it comes to chemical response as with dogs and chocolate etc. I realize I sound like an idiot saying "Derp the elephants can eat teh acid derp and they r fine lol" (which is more or less what I said), but I was making a more external observation of the wording that didn't distinguish the one from the other on a human scale.

On my end, I should also clarify: LSD potentially could be lethal, in the sense that ingesting terrific quantities of table salt or water are lethal. In the hyperbolic, practically everything is lethal (puppies, hugs, friends, you name it) and I took that for granted. Cheerio.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
@herpderp -I actually am very pro drug legalization and I fully understand that the government exaggerates (and often outright lies) about the negative effects of drugs, but the bottom line is that elephants aren't people. No one yet knows if their bodies synthesize the drug differently and thus, if such an incredibly high dosage could kill the beast. The bottom line is that injecting such a large quantity of any substance with unknown effects into any animal is beyond careless, but completely unethical.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
You cannot die from ingesting LSD. Full stop. Don't propagate government scare mythos about a drug that has already been persecuted in unreasonably draconian ways. Giving an elephant massive antipsychotic dose as well as (presumably massive) barbituate dose would lead to cardiac arrhythmia, heart failure, coma and sudden death. Lab grade LSD is about as harmful to your system as tap water, although the immense stress that an unprepared dosee could be elevated to the point of a perceived medical emergency. My only point is that by saying "gosh, no one knows if it was the [completely nonlethal substance] LSD, or the [known to be lethal in high doses] antipsychotics and barbituates that killed the elephant" is effectively towing a backwards thinking government line that results in things like, say, pharmaceutical monopolies and the criminalization of marijuana. So don't do that please. Thanks.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Okay, here is one worse than anything on that list. Walter Freeman travelling across the continental United States peforming Frontal Lobe Lobotomies on people suffering from depression. His procedure can only be deemed "experimental", as at the time there was no peer-review, studies or anything. He just went around sticking a surgical ice-pick through the orbital (eye cavity), and with a swirl, creating a cone-shaped cavity in their frontal lobes. Then he'd point and say "See, they are more docile, and happier."
Freeman adapted it from António Egas Moniz's Leukotomy.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
By the way. There is nothing more ridiculous than the way people have come to portray B.F. Skinner's Daughter-Box. His daughter herself rejects the statements that it was cruel. Powell V Texas, now there is an atrocity!
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Login to comment.

Email This Post to a Friend
"5 Science Experiments Gone Wrong"

Separate multiple emails with a comma. Limit 5.


Success! Your email has been sent!

close window

This website uses cookies.

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By using this website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

I agree
Learn More