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From Elephants on Acid to Electric Shocks: Weird Experiments

Danielle Crowley unearths some of science’s strangest episodes.

SCIENTISTS are a curious bunch. Their careers revolve around discovery and asking questions, but sometimes answering those questions can take us down strange, mad and sometimes dangerous roads. Here is a short account of some of the most bizarre experiments ever carried out in the name of science.

In 1954 Vladimir Demikhov unveiled his latest creation: a two headed dog. He did this by grafting the head, forelegs and shoulders of a puppy onto the neck of a German shepherd. Both were independent of each other, the puppy head would eat and drink even though it received its nutrition from the adult dog. Demikhov claimed that this experiment was to improve surgical techniques, such as organ transplants.

Another experiment that many find equally ghoulish was Dr. Il’ya Ivanov’s human-ape hybrid (a bit of a misnomer since humans are apes). The good doctor tried unsuccessfully to inseminate female chimpanzees with human sperm, and when that didn’t work he turned his attention to human females. Unfortunately (for him) the orangutan he obtained for this purpose died before he could test his theory. Amazingly, at least one woman willingly volunteered.

This creation was backed by the Soviet Union because they saw it as a way of proving religious fundamentalists wrong by showing the clear link between humans and non-human apes. Given the genetic similarities between our species, some scientists still wonder if it could be possible.

Have you ever wondered what an elephant on drugs would be like? Strangely enough Louis Jolyon West and Chester M. Pierce did. They gave a captive Indian elephant called Tusko 297 milligrams of LSD, 3000 times the amount of a usual human dose.

At the time of the experiment (1962), LSD research was big. Doctors studying psychosis, self-awareness and alcoholism were interested, as were the CIA, who were considering it for military use. Male elephants often go into a state known as musth, a temporary state of madness. Since LSD caused temporary madness in humans, what would it do to an elephant?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the experiment went horribly wrong when Tusko died of asphyxiation. But it didn’t stop there. In 1982, the experiment was repeated with two more elephants and with the LSD being given to them gradually. This time the elephants survived none the worse for wear, neither having gone into musth or done anything too unusual.

Why good people do terrible things led to one of the most famous psychology experiments in history. Stanley Milgram wanted to see how far “normal” people would go when told to do something by an official in a white coat. An actor in a different room pretended to answer questions that were asked by test subject. When they got one wrong, the subject was to give them an electric shock, the voltage of which would steadily increase (the actor wasn’t really getting shocked at all). The actor also pretended that they had a heart condition.

Chillingly, nearly two thirds of the subjects, even though they became distressed, continued to “shock” the actor, even when they heard pre-recorded screams of pain coming from next door. They believed they were continually shocking someone with 450 volts of electricity, yet didn’t stop because a person in authority told them to.

A replicate of this experiment where a puppy was really being visibly shocked yielded similar results, with twenty out of twenty-six following the instructions of the person leading the study.

These experiments just go to show how far humans are willing to go in search of answers, and whether or not we find them, we tend to learn much about ourselves as a species along the way.