Strange science: 6 of the weirdest scientific theories from history

In his new book, Forgotten Science, author SD Tucker explores some of the strangest and most misguided ‘scientific’ ideas from throughout history, from the idea that the Earth could be hollow, to the notion that bees were far too religious to bother with sex. Here, he gives How It Works a rundown of 6 of the most bizarre examples that were always destined to end up on the scrapheap of history…

The cow pock
A cartoon by James Gillray showing old cow-pox vaccines doing weird things to patients

1. Stupid cows

During the late eighteenth century, TB was one of the scourges of Britain, a terrible disease whose annual victims numbered in the thousands. Any potential cure, no matter how daft, seemed worth pursuing. And so it was that an innovative English doctor named Dr Thomas Beddoes came up with his idea of ‘cow-house therapy’ – the mad idea that sniffing cows and their gaseous emissions might help cure the illness. Noticing that his local butchers never seemed to catch TB, Beddoes theorised that it was “the smell of cow-meat” to which they were constantly exposed which saved them. It was well-known that both meat and milk were good for you, and when the cow breathed in the surrounding air and then breathed it out again, maybe some invisible tinge of these substances was exhaled out into the atmosphere together with its breath? A patient living in a room surrounded by cows would thus, with every gasp they made, be inhaling air seeded with health-giving cow-essence, perhaps helping heal the tubercular ulcerations in their lungs – unfortunately, they would also have to inhale their less wholesome discharges too, and Beddoes’ idea failed to catch on.

2. Life is born

One common old pseudoscientific belief was in a process called ‘spontaneous generation’; the idea that, under certain conditions, life could spawn itself sexlessly from out of nowhere. In 1906, a man named John Butler Burke made startling claims about some new life-forms called ‘radiobes’ being conjured up in his lab at Cambridge. According to Burke, when he dropped radium into test-tubes of sterilised bouillon, a breed of bizarre and tiny creatures emerged from the freshly-radioactive soup. Firstly they manifested as tiny specks which then split into two little dots, which soon adopted the shape of either dumb-bells or frog-spawn. From this point on, they apparently turned into organic crystals, before finally ending up adopting the guise of microscopic biscuits – but biscuits which were alive! Christening them ‘growing atoms’, Burke released micro-photographs of his short-lived mini-beasts to the world – but, as critics pointed out, some of these ‘photographs’ appeared in fact to be drawings which Burke had made with his own hand. When other experimenters failed to reproduce his findings, interest in Burke’s claims died off every bit as quickly as his radiobes did.

3. Bum notes

In the aftermath of US atom-bombs being dropped on Japan in 1945, the idea of nuclear energy hit the world’s headlines, and became the hot topic of discussion amongst scientists and pseudo-scientists alike. Some people, however, failed to understand the science behind the atom. Alfred W. Lawson, an American cult-leader and amateur scientific theorist, had the insane idea that all atoms were actually alive and that, when military scientists used them to create explosions, all they were really doing was forcing them to squeeze out a gigantic fart, whose blast was so great it could destroy entire cities. Believing that millions of these ‘living atoms’ (which he dubbed ‘menorgs’) were contained within the Earth’s core, he thought that by manipulating the direction and duration of their digestive gases, humanity could send our planet wherever we wished it to go – the Earth would thus become a huge spacecraft, flying through space by the force of its own colossal farting.

4. Monkey business

August Strindberg was a well-known Swedish playwright, but he really wanted to be known for his achievements in the field of science, not literature. One way he did this was by repeatedly claiming credit for the discoveries of others – according to him, he had discovered x-rays ten years before their actual discovery by Wilhelm Roentgen in 1895, but had never bothered to tell anyone. Even worse were the ‘scientific’ ideas he really did come up with! One bright idea of Strindberg’s was that gorillas were not really apes at all, but the hybrid descendants of a ship-wrecked sailor who had once been stranded alone on a desert-island with an ordinary female monkey which he had taken as his wife after getting a bit lonely as the years passed by. His ‘proof’ was that he for some reason possessed a close-up photograph of the palm of an elderly sailor which, he thought, looked extraordinarily like another photograph he inexplicably owned showing a close-up of the hand of a gorilla. He enjoyed showing visitors these two pictures and detailing his theory; apparently, most people agreed with him, but this was probably only because they were too scared not to.

Richard Lower transfusion
Richard Lower transfusing blood into a man’s arm from a lamb in 1667

5. Poor lamb

The seventeenth-century English physician Richard Lower was the first man in history to have successfully transfused blood between living beings, performing experiments in this field upon dogs during the 1660s. His trials, thought Lower, were a great success – and the next step was to try out a similar experiment upon a human being. Getting hold of a convenient lunatic named Arthur Coga (a Divinity student from Cambridge who suffered from “a harmless form of insanity”, so he said) Lower decided to see what would happen if he transfused some blood from a lamb into his veins. Coga’s own opinion was that his somewhat tempestuous nature would be alleviated by the procedure, as “Sheep’s blood has some symbolic power, like the blood of Christ, for Christ is the Lamb of God.” The hope was that the vital fluids of the proverbially meek and mild creature would produce a noticeable improvement in Mr Coga’s agitated condition. Regrettably, they did not.

6. Doctor death

During the Nazi era, many bizarre scientific theories were tested out in the Third Reich’s infamous death-camps. The most notorious Nazi medic of all was Dr Josef Mengele. Working in Auschwitz, Mengele found time to make his own, wholly unique, contribution to the annals of pseudoscience with his strange investigations into eye-colour. Seeking out gypsies who had been born with heterochromia of the iris (one eye blue, one brown), Mengele gave orders for their eyes to be cut out after death, preserved and then sent to him to add to his own collection. It appears that one of the aims of this sick exercise was a fantasy Mengele had about trying to make brown-eyed people into blue-eyed Aryan-types. Some Germans were born with the ‘correct’ blonde hair, but also had ‘incorrect’ brown eyes. Therefore, Mengele got hold of a number of gypsy child-prisoners of this same type and began forcibly injecting doses of blue methylene into their eyes to see what happened. What happened was that they died, went blind, or suffered severe ocular infections and horrible pain. Their eyes, though, remained resolutely brown …

Forgotten Science: Strange Ideas from the Scrapheap of History by SD Tucker is out now from Amberley Publishing.

Forgotten science
Forgotten Science by S.D Tucker