Volatile Facts About Dangerous Science Experiments in History

November 17, 2023 | Jamie Hayes

Volatile Facts About Dangerous Science Experiments in History

“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better". —Ralph Waldo Emerson

There’s always going to be some risk involved in scientific progress, but there were plenty of times throughout history where scientists took way more risk than you would ever think was worth it. Sometimes it was out of arrogance, sometimes incompetence, and often it was just out a complete lack of concern for a subject’s safety. So here are 44 facts about some of the most downright dangerous scientific experiments ever conducted.

1. Down The Rabbit Hole

In 1938, Dr. Albert Hofmann became the first individual to create the compound lysergic acid diethylamide, often referred to by its acronym. In 1943, Hoffman decided to test the drug on himself. He took 250 micrograms, what he assumed to be a small dose. He would later learn that it was roughly 10 times the necessary dose of the drug. Fortunately, his following experience - the first intentional psychedelic journey - caused no harm, and he actually found the experience to be extremely pleasurable.

science experiments

2. Lucy In The Sky With Mind Control

Project MKUltra was a highly confidential CIA initiative in which they examined the effects of a powerful hallucinogenic substance with the intent of discovering its potential for mind control. Much of the project was completed unethically, with people being experimented on without their knowledge. A CIA scientist named Frank Olson, who clandestinely received a potent hallucinogen, succumbed to a depressive condition and tragically plummeted from a window of a New York City hotel merely nine days afterward.

Science Experiments FactsFlickr,Global Panorama

3. The Elephant In The Room

Out of all the tests conducted using this hallucinogenic substance, this particular one seems to be the most peculiar.In 1962, researchers at the University of Oklahoma administered an elephant named Tusko with an excessive quantity of a powerful hallucinogenic substance, which was 1,000 times the standard recreational dosage for humans. The researchers were testing to see if it would send the elephant into a state called “musth,” where males become violent and uncontrollable. The experiment seems absurd from the beginning, but it wasn't successful either—the elephant started convulsing minutes after the injection and expired shortly thereafter.

Science Experiments FactsPxHere

4. Maybe Not The Best Idea

People have been selling chemistry sets as toys to children since before WWII. Unfortunately, these sets were often not the safest things in the world: One set showed an image of a small girl stripping a battery with metal pliers, presumably to see what is inside. A message to children everywhere: never do this.

Science Experiments FactsFlickr, Windell Oskay

5. DIY Gunpowder, Kids!

One thing that children could do with early chemistry sets is combine potassium nitrate, sulphur, and charcoal to create their very own gunpowder. Which, uh, probably wouldn’t meet today’s safety standards.

Science Experiments FactsFlickr, Windell Oskay

6. Poison For Tots

All kinds of chemicals could be found in children’s chemistry sets, including extremely dangerous ones like cyanide. But, believe it or not, some old-fashioned scientists prefer those old sets, believing that they were far more useful than today’s safer, less capable kits.

Science Experiments FactsWikimedia Commons

7. Radioactive, Radioactive

In the '40s and '50s, interest in nuclear power was at an all time high. To profit off the craze, toymakers made nuclear playsets. These sets sometimes included uranium dust. The only problem is: uranium dust is highly radioactive and poses a major health risk. Kind of obviously.

Science Experiments FactsWikimedia Commons

8. Destructive Beam

The electric termination-ray is a common element in science-fiction, but were you aware that Nikola Tesla legitimately professed to have crafted one? After conducting experiments where cathode rays were directed at targets, Tesla claimed that he constructed a device operating on a principle he named "teleteleforceforce," capable of annihilating entire squadrons of aircraft from considerable distances. He once spoke of his ray, which can end life, saying, "It is not an experiment... I have constructed, demonstrated, and utilized it". Only a little time will pass before I can give it to the world". He tried to sell the design to various governments, but they all turned him down, and most of his notes about the mysterious machine have been lost, so today no one really knows what the device was or what it was capable of.

Science Experiments FactsWikipedia

9. Literally Launching Missiles With Lasers

Even today, militaries all over the world are experimenting with using high-powered lasers to destroy enemy missiles before they can reach their target. Many successful tests have occurred where missiles have been detonated by firing lasers at them, but as of yet no practical application of the idea has been implemented.

Science Experiments FactsWikimedia Commons

10. Ring Around The Rosie

During the Middle Ages, the bubonic plague, aresulted in a significant decline, anywhere from a third to over half, in Europe's population. Disturbingly, during the Cold Cold era, both the US and Russia tested the use of the plague as a form of biological conflict. Reportedly, the Russians carried out significant research on how to disperse it in aerosol form, and even manufactured a substantial quantity of the plague bacteria for use in these combat equipment.

The Black Death FactsShutterstock

11. Leave The Dog Out Of It!

While conducting research on potential biological threats, Joseph Barcroft subjected both himself and a dog to hydrogen cyanide in order to observe the effects. Barcroft himself experienced moderate breathing problems, but the dog had a severe reaction (don’t worry, it would later recover).

Science Experiments Facts Wikimedia Commons

12. Even Worse Than You Thought

During the Holocaust, unethical medical practitioners conducted horrifying experiments on individuals in concentration camps. With absolutely no concern for their subjects’ lives, doctors intentionally infected them with diseases like malaria, tested poisons on them, and removed organs without anaesthetics, to name just a few of their atrocities.

Science Experiments FactsWikimedia Commons

13. The Most Terrible Unit You’ve Never Heard Of

During WWII, the Japanese performed their own shocking medical experiments. The clandestine Unit 731 carried out experiments on approximately 250,000 subjects, predominantly those of Chinese descent and incarcerated individuals. They carried out experiments comparable to those of the Nazis, such as performing surgeries without anaesthetics, exploring biological harmful agents, and extracting organs from their subjects, ostensibly for scientific purposes.

Science Experiments FactsWikipedia

14. Unknown Territory

The harnessing of nuclear power was one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century, and not long after, scientists learned to harness its potentially destructive energy. The Americans were the first to manage it, and tested their first nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945. Since the Trinity Test, as it was called, was the very first detonation of a nuclear device, few could exactly predict the destruction that it would cause. Indeed, the examination was considered successful by scientists, and within less than a month, the American armed forces utilized those same explosives in Japan.

Dangerous Science Experiments in History factsGetty Images

15. It’s Not A Competition

Scientists in Australia also conducted tests on volunteer subjects using various potential biological instruments of combat. These volunteers were egged on by staff, who encouraged them to place bets amongst themselves, with the persons who were hurt the worst by the treatments receiving the biggest payouts. Many of then men were left with permanent disfigurements.

Creepy Things in Basements factsShutterstock

16. I Prefer Ketchup

During WWII, the American Navy conducted tests with mustard gas, the terrifying chemical weapon utilized in WWI, on its own personnel. Young recruits, aged 17 and 18, were asked if they wanted to take part in an experiment, and were only told once they reached the laboratory that the experiments involved mustard gas. All of them endured severe injuries, but they were compelled by the armed forces to remain silent for decades.

Military IdiotsShutterstock

17. The Anthrax Subway Test

In the sixties, British armed forces were worried about the potential of a biological assault on the city of London. To try and better prepare themselves, they released a box of Bacillus globigii spores, a fungus similar to anthrax, into the London subway system on July 26, 1963 to see how it might spread. Although the scientists initially believed Bacillus globigii was benign, it actually had the capacity to lead to various health issues, ranging from foodborne illness to eye infections.

Science Experiments FactsWikimedia Commons

18. Unwitting Volunteer

In May 1953, scientists in the British Ministry of Defence experimented with the nerve-gas sarin on the 20-year-old Ronald Maddison, who unknowingly volunteered for what he thought were minor tests. However, the scientists employed him to ascertain the fatal dose of sarin, causing Maddison to succumb on the floor, spasming and frothing at the mouth.

Science Experiments FactsWikipedia

19. He Must Always Be Hungry

Doctors knew very little about how digestion worked in 1822 when Dr. William Beaumont was presented with a very unique opportunity. A fur trader had been shot in the stomach and was treated by Beaumont. Although he recovered, he was left with a hole in his stomach that never healed. Rather than try to fix the hole, Beaumont instead performed tests with the trader: He would tie food to a string, insert it into the man’s stomach through the hole, and then later pull out the string to see how the food was being digested.

Science Experiments FactsWikimedia Commons, Wellcome Collection

20. Yellow In His Belly, But Not Yellow-Bellied

Stubbins Ffirth was a doctor who studied yellow fever in the early 1800s. Based on his observations, he believed that the illness wasn’t contagious, and he looked to prove his point. He did this by taking some vomit from a yellow-fever patient and pouring it into cuts on his arms. After that, he poured some into his eyes. Finally, he ended up just drinking entire glasses of the vomit. Surprisingly, he didn’t actually get sick, but he wasn't right. Yellow-fever is contagious, but it’s contagious through direct contact with blood, not vomit. Good try though…

Science Experiments FactsWikimedia Commons


21. Self-Surgery

Werner Theodor Otto Forssmann was a pioneer in cardiac surgery, and developed a procedure to insert a catheter into the heart. While he was still a student, he inserted a catheter into a vein on his arm, pushed it all the way up his arm and into his heart, then walked over to the X-Ray department to see the results. Thankfully, the experiment was a success, and his X-Ray showed that the catheter had reached his heart safely. He totally got fired after, but he did end up winning the 1956 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Most Incredible People quizFlickr

22. Shameful History

Between 1932 and 1972, doctors in Alabama carried out the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, which undoubtedly stands as one of the most glaringly discriminatory, unethical, and outright horrifying medical studies in American history. Over that period, 399 african american patients were intentionally infected with syphilis without their knowledge. Doctors then studied the effects of the disease on them, never telling them what they had and never even trying to treat it—even after penicillin was discovered to cure the disease in 1947.

Science Experiments FactsWikipedia

23. Bad Diplomacy

Similar to the Tuskegee experiment, an American research group infected unconsenting Guatemalans with various STDs between 1946 and 1948. The study specifically used marginalized groups—prisoners, mental patients, sex workers, and children were all infected, approximately 1,300 people in all.

Secrets Not Supposed to Know factsRawpixel

24. You Are Who You Are

Though condemned by mental health professionals today, in the last century people all over the world have tried to “cure” gay people by converting them to heterosexuality. In the '70s and '80s, in South Africa, conscripts who identified as gay faced various harsh methods including electroconvulsive therapy and chemical castration, aimed at attempting to alter their identity. Most medical professionals in the developed world today have realized that homosexuality is not a medical illness, and that any attempts to “cure” it cause more harm than good.

Science Experiments FactsDoD - Defense.gov

25. Shocking Medicine

Believe it or not, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) has proven to be surprisingly safe and effective in treating some cases of mental illness. But while today the process has been refined, in the early days it was done without muscle relaxants or painkillers, and it could be a very dangerous treatment. Indeed, it was often used to frighten difficult patients into obedience.

Science Experiments FactsShutterstock

26. I Need A Lobotomy Like I Need A Hole In The Head

The practice of trepanning, or drilling a hole in the skull, has been done for millennia, but lobotomy is something different entirely. Surgeons would drill a hole in the skull and insert an ice-pick like tool called a leucotome into the brain. Early practitioners reported amazing improvements in their patients, and the procedure began to be done worldwide. Unfortunately, it was only after decades of practice that people realized the irreparable harm lobotomies cause.

Science Experiments FactsWikimedia Commons, Wolfgang Sauber

27. Intense Treatment

Doctors in the late 19th and early 20th century were convinced that “hysteria” was a real mental illness that affected women who they deemed abnormal. One of these such women was Emma Eckstein, a patient of Sigmund Freud’s. Though she had, by today’s standards, extremely minor symptoms, Freud diagnosed her with hysteria, and prescribed a terrifying treatment: Surgeon Wilhelm Fliess removed bones from her nose. The procedure did nothing to cure Eckstein’s “hysteria,” and was in fact performed so poorly that she suffered from horrible side-effects for years to come; another surgeon even discovered that Fliess had left surgical gauze in the wound.

Dangerous Science Experiments in History factsWikipedia

28. The Monster Study

You know an experiment is bad when it gets dubbed “The Monster Study". That’s what colleagues called Wendell Johnson and Mary Tudor’s experiments on 22 children from an orphanage in Iowa. A speech pathologist, Johnson wanted to see how feedback affects children’s speech development. His team told children who had stutters that their speech was fine to see how it affected them, but also told children whose speech was perfectly normal that they had a terrible stutter and needed to work to fix it immediately. Children from the latter group became extremely self-conscious about their speech, and many of them had severe speech problems for the rest of their lives.

Science Experiments FactsFlickr, Museum of Hartlepool

29. Behind Bars

The Stanford Confinement Experiment is among the most renowned psychological experiments ever conducted. 21 students were divided into 10 "inmates" and 11 "guards", situated within a simulated incarceration environment. Within hours, the guards were mistreating the prisoners, and by the second day, the prisoners instigated a unsuccessful rebellion. Eventually, the guards took complete control over the prisoners, and within just a few days began treating them like animals. Not long after, several of the prisoners suffered complete emotional breakdowns, and the experiment had to be cut short.

Science Experiments FactsWikimedia Commons, Teodorvasic97

30. Shocking Results

In yet another psychological experiment, Stanley Milgram wanted to see how far people would go to obey an instruction, even if it meant harming another person. Participants thought that they were in charge of delivering greater and greater shocks to another test subject. The fake shock generator they had in front of them went from 15 volts to 450 volts. When told to shock the person hooked up to the machine, 65% of participants obeyed instructions right up to 450 volts, and all of them obeyed up to 300 volts. The results of the study were unsettling, and many of the participants later claimed to be traumatized to find out they were capable of such horrible acts.

Fyre Festival factsShutterstock

31. You’re Going To Give Me An Ulcer

For years, people thought that stomach ulcers were caused by stress. But in the eighties, Drs. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren discovered that they were actually caused by bacteria. To prove their point, Marshall ingested some of the bacteria himself, and lo and behold, he got a stomach ulcer soon after. To be fair, Marshall and Warren won the Nobel Prize in 2005 for their discovery, so it was probably worth it.

Science Experiments FactsGetty Images

32. “All I Saw Before Me Were Acres Of Skin”

Dr. Albert M. Kligman was an American dermatologist who had permission to conduct experiments on consenting individuals who were incarcerated in Philadelphia's Holmesburg facility. Although Kligman’s subjects allowed him to perform tests on them, and none of them experienced long-term harm, he still subjected them to many painful procedures involving unknown substances. He was famously quoted as saying that when he saw the prisoners, he didn’t see people, but rather saw “acres of skin. It was like a farmer seeing a field for the first time".

Cab Drivers Share Experience factsGetty Images

33. Stateville Correctional Facility Blues

The Stateville Penitentiary malaria tests of the 1940s are yet another example of performing dangerous experiments on prisoners. To deepen their understanding of the disease that was inflicting considerable harm on Americans serving their country, medics from the University of Chicago exposed 441 willing inmates to mosquitos carrying malaria. Though the study continued for years and was widely praised, in recent memory it has been considered the paradigm of abusive human research, and it has sparked a huge debate about the ethics of human experimentation.

Science Experiments Facts

34. Hanging Out

Nicolae Minovici was a Romanian scientist who studied what happens to a human body when it gets hung from a noose. To find out, Minovici watched hundreds of hangings, but he felt that he had learned as much as he could second-hand. So he took the next logical step: he tried hanging himself. He first tried tying a rope around his neck and pulling on it himself. Then he tried having his assistants pull on the rope. Finally, he tried doing the real deal: he tied a true hangman’s noose, hung it from the ceiling, tied it around his neck, and had his assistants pull on the rope as hard as they could. He lasted only four seconds before making the assistants stop, and still had trouble swallowing for a month after.

Science Experiments FactsWikipedia

35. Arachnophobia

After seeing that the bite of a black widow spider could kill rats and mice, Dr. Allan Walker Blair wanted to find out what the effect would be on a person. So what did he do? Similar to many of his predecessors on this list, he let the spider bite him. Unsurprisingly, he proceeded to experience complete agony (and was unable even to take notes on the experience after two hours) for the next two days, but fortunately he did recover.

Science Experiments FactsPixabay


36. Worms, Worms, Worms

There are various types of parasitic worms that can infect humans, and scientists have discovered how they enter the body through various ill-conceived means. Italian scientist Giovanni Battista Grassi tested his theory that giant roundworms infect people through the digestive tract by consuming their eggs, which he collected from an infected body that was no longer living. He was right.

Science Experiments FactsWikimedia Commons

37. Shot Through The Heart

John Deering was an inmate on capital punishment row, who received his sentencing in 1938, but what makes him so unique is the manner in which his sentence was carried out. He agreed to take part in a test by Dr. Stephen Besley, who wanted to see what a person’s heart rate would be…if they were shot in the heart. When Deering was executed, he was connected to an electrocardiogram and subsequently subjected to a direct shot through the heart. This allowed Besley to closely observe how his heart reacted both prior to and amidst this violent circumstance.

Science Experiments FactsFlickr, Internet Archive Book Images

38. The Demon Core

Physicist Louis Slotin was meant to be one of the world’s foremost experts at handling a sphere of radioactive plutonium known as a “demon core". This plutonium pit was much like the cores of the nuclear explosives deployed in Japan, and Slotin was demonstrating how to meticulously bring the core to near the point of criticality. Unfortunately, while performing the extremely delicate experiment, Slotin dropped a screwdriver and released a huge amount of radioactivity, sending out a bright blue glow. The people observing the experiment managed to survive, however Slotin succumbed shortly thereafter to radiation exposure.

Science Experiments FactsWikimedia Commons


39. Not A Bright Idea

Thomas Edison was inarguably a brilliant scientific mind, but not all of his work was great. He did a lot of experiments with X-Rays in his career before the dangers of radiation were well understood. He performed countless X-Ray tests on a man named Clarence Dally to try and refine the process. Over the years, Dally's health began to decline physically, but he assumed he would recover as he would from a regular injury. Eventually, Edison recognized the damage he was inflicting and ceased his experiments with X-Rays. Unfortunately, it was too late, and Dally met his end shortly thereafter.

Nikola Tesla FactsWikipedia

40. AC/DC

Edison’s feud with Nikola Tesla is almost as famous as Edison himself. Edison was a proponent of DC power, while Tesla believed in AC power. Today both types see wide use in different applications, but Edison was convinced that DC power was the way of the future (and wanted to keep profiting from his lucrative DC patents). In 1903, Edison was engaged to euthanize an elephant that had taken the lives of several trainers. Using this opportunity, Edison demonstrated to the world the hazards of AC electricity. He shocked her with 6,600 volts of AC current and she instantly lost her life. This served as proof of nothing more than inhumane treatment towards animals, and AC gradually found its place in homes worldwide.

Nikola Tesla FactsWikimedia Commons

41. Huffing Gas

Thomas Midgley Jr., a scientist at General Motors, added a substance called tetraethyllead, or TEL, to gasoline in the early 20th century to make leaded gasoline. It solved certain issues with the the engines in cars at the time, but people were afraid that it could pose health risks. To prove them wrong, Midgley would do presentations where he would thoroughly bathe his hands in TEL to show its safety. Little did he know, the substance was extremely unsafe. Though he recovered, Midgley fell ill from inhaling lead.

Science Experiments FactsPicryl

42. Just Keep Digging

During the period of heightened tension between the United States and Russia, scientists from both nations devised plans to dig as far as possible into the Earth’s crust. The Americans abandoned their plans, but the Russians went through with it, managing to dig a hole more than 12km into the Earth’s crust. Since no one had dug so far before, scientists were worried that there could be unexpected seismic activity as a result of the hole. Thankfully, the test went as well as could be expected, and the Kola Superdeep Borehole still exists today, though the site is closed.

Scary FactsPxHere

43. Black Hole Sun

The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland is the world’s largest particle accelerator. This 27km long ring shoots particle beams into each other at close to the speed of light. Before the machine was turned on, no one was completely sure what it was capable of, and there were fears that it could create a black hole that could swallow the planet. CERN, the organization that runs the LHC, has said that any black holes it might make would be extremely small and completely safe. Comforting.

Science Experiments FactsWikipedia

44. Rocket Man

John Paul Stapp was an American flight surgeon who researched the effects of high g-forces on pilots. It was for this cause that he strapped himself to a rocket sled in the middle of the desert that would shoot along a track before stopping suddenly at the end. In his most extreme test, conducted on December 10, 1954, he accelerated from 0 to 632 miles per hour in just five seconds before coming to a complete stop in just 1.4 seconds. All of the vessels in Stapp’s eyes burst, he went temporarily blind, he broke both wrists and cracked several ribs, but he survived and gained the title of the "fastest man on earth".

Science Experiments FactsWright-Patterson AFB

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28


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