Kean explores crimes committed for the sake of expanding human knowledge in The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science (Little, Brown, July.).
What gave you the idea for this book?
I’d been collecting stories like this for a while, about scientists who’d just gotten so obsessed by an idea that they went way too far in pursuing it. I was fascinated that you could take the pursuit of knowledge, which normally is a good thing—that’s what we want scientists to do, but it got twisted in this dark way, and they threw over every ethical consideration to try to find out the answer to some question or pursue some research.
What was the first story of a criminal scientist that you encountered that really stuck with you?
I think it was English naturalist William Dampier, who became so obsessed with botany and zoology that he became a pirate in order to pursue that passion in the late 17th century.
Is there a category of science that’s most prone to producing these kinds of criminals?
Fraud is pretty common in all scientific disciplines, but medicine stands out because in medicine there are human lives involved, and the ethical issues are much more frequent and complicated. In my book, I have cases where, seen in the abstract, the motivation could have been seen as a good thing, like wanting to eliminate STDs, but the doctors fell for the ends-justify-the-means fallacy: “I’ll trample these people’s rights, and just go for it.”
Is there a period of history more prone to producing scientific criminals of the type you cover here?
A lot of the stories happened during the Cold War, and I think there was a sense that we have to defeat the Soviet Union, whatever it takes. A lot of corners were cut in order to get an edge on the Soviets. Ironically, some of the most horrible experiments, like the Guatemala human studies into STDs, and the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, were actually going on at the same time they were debating the Nuremberg Code of medical ethics over in Europe. There was a surprising disconnect there in that the scientists involved in the American experiments just somehow thought that the Nazi science under discussion in Germany after WWII was just something other people do. “We’re good people, we don’t need to worry about the kind of things being debated.” At the exact same time, though, they were running these terrible experiments, and even killed some people in Guatemala doing them.