Science - USA (2021-07-16)

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288 16 JULY 2021 • VOL 373 ISSUE 6552 SCIENCE



n 1771, an idealistic British naturalist
named Henry Smeathman set sail for Af-
rica on a collecting trip. The 29-year-old’s
destination was Sierra Leone, famed
as a center of the colonial slave trade.
Smeathman hoped not only to amass
a treasure trove of insect specimens—his
particular area of interest—but also, along
the way, to better educate his fellow Eng-
lishmen about Black Africans, whom he
saw as a “little-known and much misrepre-
sented people.” He would fail on both counts.
Much of Smeathman’s collection was lost
to transportation disasters. His
ideals, meanwhile, were worn
away by financial desperation
and by the company he kept with
friendly, cash-rich slave trad-
ers. By 1773, Smeathman was
trafficking enslaved people to
support his collections. He was
far from the only naturalist to
become entangled with slavery
and its handy shipping routes,
notes Sam Kean in The Icepick
Surgeon, but his story provides
an excellent example of “how
intertwined science and slavery
were” and how easily the lucra-
tive practice could undermine
the morals of even the best-
intentioned scientist.
The question of “what pushes
men and women to cross the
line and commit crimes and mis-
deeds in the name of science” is
the focus of The Icepick Surgeon,
which explores several centuries’
worth of dubious research deci-
sions, from morally compromised collec-
tors of the past to forensic fraudsters of the
present. It is an intriguing question, and the
book—although sometimes imperfect in its
logic—serves as an important reminder that
science is ever a human enterprise.
Quoting Carl Jung, Kean notes that “an
evil person lurks inside all of us, and only
if we recognize that fact can we hope to
tame them.” That we often fail at taming

these impulses is the premise connecting
the separate stories of the book, an ap-
proach Kean has used with great charm
in previous books. A guided tour through
scientific misdeeds such as grave-robbing
and torture, however, offers trickier terrain
to explore and less opportunity for charm.
Still, Kean’s talent for spinning a delight-
ful tale shines on occasion. A chapter titled
“Sabotage: The Bone Wars,” for example,
which looks at the way scientists have
sometimes sought to sabotage each other’s
work, manages to be comically engag-
ing and dismaying at the same time. This
tale involves two leading paleontologists

of the late 19th century, Edward Drinker
Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, who ob-
sessively attempted to outdo one another.
They deliberately smeared each other’s
reputations, stole fossils, and even salted
digs with fraudulent material. In the end,
however, Cope and Marsh did more harm
to each other than to the profession itself.
Their rivalry helped stock museums with
valuable specimens, led to discoveries of
new dinosaur species, and spurred public
interest in these long-vanished creatures.
In other chapters, the stories are ug-
lier, and the logic by which Kean con-

nects them to the bigger scientific picture
is sometimes unclear. A chapter on Nazi
medical experiments, for example, segues
into American infectious disease studies
that deceptively used people of color as
test subjects but passes over the American
eugenics movement of the early 20th cen-
tury. This is strange, considering that the
eugenics movement served as direct inspi-
ration for some of the Nazis’ most destruc-
tive “scientific” policies.
Meanwhile, a chapter on science and
murder revolves around a gruesome 19th-
century incident in which one Harvard
University researcher killed another. The
crime derived from an unpaid
personal debt, however, and did
not occur “in the name of sci-
ence” itself. Here again, Kean
rather puzzlingly ignores more
relevant instances in which re-
searchers used direct scientific
knowledge—such as a familiar-
ity with cyanide or thallium—to
commit murder ( 1 , 2 ).
The terrain over which the
book treads is murky, wide-rang-
ing, and complex, and not every
troubling story can be told. There
is no chapter, for instance, on sex-
ual misconduct, despite burgeon-
ing evidence that it is a pervasive
problem in the scientific commu-
nity. But Kean ultimately succeeds
in touching on many issues that
have fueled doubts about scien-
tists, including some doubts of
his own. Quoting Albert Einstein,
he writes: “Most people say that
it is the intellect which makes a
great scientist. They are wrong: it
is character.” Kean once dismissed this as a
facile line, he writes in his conclusion. But he
has come to believe it to be entirely true. j


  1. “Pittsburgh researcher convicted of poisoning wife with
    cyanide,” CBS News, 7 November 2014; http://www.cbsnews.

  2. “Bristol-Myers Squibb chemist used thallium to
    poison husband,” TAPinto Piscataway, 25 April



By Deborah Blum

Researchers behaving badly

A collection of vivid historical tales reveals scientists

at their most fallible

The Icepick Surgeon:
Murder, Fraud, Sabotage,
Piracy, and Other Dastardly
Deeds Perpetrated in the
Name of Science
Sam Kean
Little, Brown, 2021. 368 pp.

Chemist and atomic spy Harry Gold leaves federal court in 1950.


The reviewer is the director of the Knight Science
Journalism Program at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA, and the publisher
of Undark magazine. Email:

0716Books.indd 288 7/9/21 4:54 PM

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