The history of science is full of bizarre experiments involving human subjects. Some of these experiments, unfortunately, used subjects that, to varying degrees, weren’t there of their own free will. There’s also a long and colorful history of self-experimentation, in which researchers have performed odd tests on themselves.
But there’s an unusual, third type of situation. These are cases in which non-scientists willingly, with full knowledge of what might happen, have volunteered to participate in experiments that can only be described as insane.
Sometimes researchers weren’t even looking for volunteers for these experiments, but they got them anyway.
In 1946 the U.S. Navy was preparing to conduct Operation Crossroads, the first post-war atomic bomb test. The plan was to assemble a vast armada of ships in the Pacific Ocean and explode an A-bomb over it, to gauge how a fleet would fare during a nuclear conflict.
Researchers stocked the target ships with animals, in order to measure the effect of the bomb on living creatures. Obviously human subjects couldn’t have been used for this purpose, but before the test proceeded the Navy received letters from 40 different people who offered to take the place of the animals on the ships. Among the volunteers: a man who said he would do it for $10,000, a geriatric who said he didn’t expect to live much longer anyway, and an inmate from San Quentin’s Death Row.
Navy researchers conceded that humans would be preferable to animals, in terms of the medical information that might be gained.
Nevertheless, all the volunteers were politely turned down.
James Tatom, a mechanic from Dayton, Ohio, had lost a leg in an accident, but he found a New York physician willing to sew a new one back on, if only Tatum could find someone willing to part with a good leg. So Tatom put out a call for volunteers.
Tatom sweetened the deal by offering the volunteer all the money from the sale of the movie rights to the operation.
Tatom soon received offers from over a dozen people, including two women.
One volunteer explained, “Some people might think me insane, but when a man is almost down and out, ready to lose his home, he is willing to do anything.”
But Tatom’s wife put the kibosh on the leg transplant operation after she learned that such an operation had never been performed successfully. In fact, the operation would have had zero chance of success. This all took place in 1926. So even if the operation itself could have been performed, which is doubtful, physicians had not yet developed methods of preventing the rejection of foreign tissue. The leg would have died, and probably cost Tatom his own life as well.
Back in 1935, Dr. Ralph Willard claimed he had perfected a technique that would allow a person to be frozen solid and then revived. People might be frozen for years, decades, even centuries, and then brought back to life, he promised.
Willard told the media that he had successfully tested his technique on a rhesus monkey named Jekal, whom he had frozen for five days and then revived. So he was ready for the next step, to experiment on a human being.
All he needed was a volunteer willing to become a “human icicle.”
35-year-old Hollywood screenwriter Stephen Simkhovitch stepped forward and volunteered to do it, saying he was motivated only a desire to “do something for humanity.” Simkhovitch even signed a contract in which he absolved Dr. Willard of all blame in the event of his death during the experiment.
Thankfully, California health authorities interceded and stopped the experiment from proceeding, noting that “suicide is against the law.” Willard was later exposed as a quack and a fraud. However, Simkhovitch seems to have been sincere in his willingness to be frozen. Suspicions that he harbored suicidal tendencies were confirmed when he committed suicide four years later.
In 1927, the Soviet biologist Il’ya Ivanov traveled to French Guinea where he hoped to impregnate a female chimpanzee with human sperm, thereby creating the world’s first human/ape hybrid. Neither genetics nor the staff at the research station cooperated with his disturbing plan. So, frustrated, he returned to the Soviet Union the next year.
He brought back with him a male orangutan named Tarzan and promptly launched into Plan B, which was to impregnate a human female with ape sperm.
He discreetly put out the word about his plan, and he soon received a letter from “G.” in Leningrad:
“Dear Professor, … With my private life in ruins, I don’t see any sense in my further existence… But when I think that I could do a service for science, I feel enough courage to contact you. I beg you, don’t refuse me… I ask you to accept me for the experiment.”
Ivanov was more than willing to accept G. as a volunteer. However, Tarzan then died of a brain hemorrhage, and with no orangutan there was no experiment. Soon after, Ivanov fell victim to one of Stalin’s political purges and was shipped off to a prison camp.
In 1955, the U.S. Civil Defense Administration (CDA) constructed “Survival City” in the Nevada desert. It was a model town designed to be blown up by an atomic bomb as a way of testing how average homes might (or might not) survive a nuclear conflict. The homes were fully furnished, even containing refrigerators stocked with food. But there were no people in them. Instead of people, researchers placed mannequins in the houses.
No need for that, said Mrs. Marion Jacoby, a Georgia housewife. She contacted the CDA, volunteering to sit inside one of the homes as the bomb went off. She reasoned, “If they can learn so much by watching an explosion from way off, how much more could they learn if someone were close up?”
The CDA referred her offer to the national civil defense director, who quickly turned it down. The administration, he explained, didn’t want to expose anyone to “unnecessary risk.”
Jacoby responded, “I’m just sick with disappointment.”
In 2012, the Dutch company Mars One announced that they hoped to send a 4-person crew to Mars by 2023, and were accepting applications for the job.
Volunteers who successfully made the cut could expect a journey to a barren, freezing planet with a toxic atmosphere. Also, it would be a one-way ticket because, to save costs, the company wasn’t planning to bring anyone home. Experts interviewed by the media predicted that, given the company’s meager resources, the crew would be unlikely to survive for more than a few months on the planet.
Nevertheless, according to the company over 200,000 people applied for the job. By 2015, this had been whittled down to a candidate pool of about 100.
Credible reports suggest that the company has nowhere near enough money to finance such a venture. So the chances of them ever sending anyone on a one-way trip to Mars lie somewhere between slim and none. Which is just as well, for everyone involved.
First appeared on About.com