Did they really do that?

Four decades ago, a group of scientists actually thought it was a good idea to give an elephant LSD

By | September 7, 2007

In a cartoon by former NASA roboticist Randall Munroe, a man reaches out and pulls a lever. Immediately a bolt of lightning strikes him from the sky. When the man is a "normal" person, he sensibly thinks, "I guess I shouldn't do that." When he is a scientist, however, he scratches his head and asks, "I wonder if that happens every time," and reaches again for the lever. Curiosity is what makes scientists tick. This curiosity can lead to great discoveries, but it can also inspire bizarre experiments that appear highly peculiar to the rest of society. Such experiments come in a number of different varieties. At one end of the spectrum are the experiments that, in the words of Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, "first make you laugh, and then make you think." The research is serious, but the subject matter contains hints of the absurd. For example, a 2006 study at the University of Western Ontario sought to find out if the average dog would seek help in an emergency. Cooperative dog owners pretended to have a heart attack while walking their pet. At a pre-determined spot, they clutched their chest, cried out dramatically, then collapsed to the ground and feigned lifelessness. The dogs were not impressed. Most of them sniffed their owner a few times before wandering around aimlessly -- except for one toy poodle. This bold pooch rushed over to the nearest person, jumped up on her lap, and offered his belly to be petted. The researchers concluded that most dog owners should not expect their pet to turn into Lassie during an emergency. Then there are the bizarre experiments that make you cringe, not laugh. The classic example is the 1962 elephant-on-acid experiment. A trio of Oklahoma City researchers became curious about what would happen if they gave an elephant LSD. There was just one problem. They had no clue how much LSD to give it. Elephants are really big creatures, so the researchers figured their subject would need a really big dose. They settled on 297 milligrams, about 3000 times the level of a normal human dose. They shot the drug into the elephant's rump. It trumpeted angrily, woozily rocked back and forth, then keeled over. Soon, tragically, it was dead. In the article that appeared in Science a few months later, the researchers euphemistically noted, "It appears that the elephant is highly sensitive to the effects of LSD." The lesson is that having three researchers work on a problem does not make it three times more likely someone will display common sense. And then there are the experiments that simply make you shake your head in disbelief and exclaim, "Someone really did that?" Stubbins Ffirth was a doctor-in-training who lived in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia. To gain his medical degree, he undertook to determine whether yellow fever is contagious. He used himself as the test subject, exposing himself to the disease in every way he could imagine. He smeared himself with the blood, urine, sweat, and black vomit of yellow-fever patients. He dribbled the vomit into his eyes. He even drank undiluted vomit fresh from the mouth of a patient. Miraculously, Ffirth didn't get sick, prompting him to declare yellow fever non-contagious. Of course, he was wrong. It hadn't occurred to him to test for transmission by mosquito bite. Ffirth's experiment demonstrates the difficulty of identifying all the possible variables in a real-world situation. The history of science is full of bizarre experiments. Many of them, for all their weirdness, display a touch of genius. In 1978, Russell Clark published results of an experiment in which students from his psychology class sexually propositioned strangers in public places to find out if men and women responded differently. No surprise, almost all men accepted the invitation, and all women rejected it. Initially ridiculed by the scientific community (journals refused to publish it for years), the study now earns widespread praise for demonstrating the importance of gender differences in sexual attitudes, something to which psychologists had previously paid little attention. Unfortunately, if you're designing an experiment that makes your colleagues raise their eyebrows in surprise, it can be very difficult to know if you're heading down the path of genius or madness. The difference usually only becomes apparent in hindsight. Alex Boese's book about bizarre experiments, Elephants on Acid from Harcourt, goes on sale November 5, 2007. He is the creator and curator of the Museum of Hoaxes, and lives near San Diego. Alex Boese mail@the-scientist.com Links within this article: L. Walsh, "D'ya hear about the moon bison?" The Scientist, March 2, 2007. http://www.the-scientist.com/news/display/52922/ Annals of Improbable Research http://www.improb.com/ K. Macpherson and WA Roberts, "Do dogs (Canis familiaris) seek help in an emergency?" Journal of Comparative Psychology, May 2006. http://content.apa.org/journals/com/120/2/113 RD Clark, "Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers," Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality, August 1989. http://tinyurl.com/2a39uo A. Boese, Elephants on Acid http://tinyurl.com/2lhwhl Museum of Hoaxes http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/


Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

September 7, 2007

I am curious if anyone else noticed the irony of the headline about elephants on LSD and sharks on Prozac in the same daily issue? \n\nThe elephant experiment is not an expected result at all. Rats were given large doses of LSD without harm, but it was found to be a non-addictive pain killer stronger than most in the process. Terminal patients were given multi-gram doses in the 1950's as a pain killer. That experiment was terminated early due to some patients complaining about "strange hallucinations". Dolphins were given LSD as well and seemed to "have very good trips" according to the experimenter. None of them were injected however. LSD given orally or in eyedrops does wonderfully. But it absorbs quite well through the skin. \n\n(The dog experiment is too stupid.) \n\nHow about an article on silly authors cherry picking experiments for what "sounds weird" in the current conservative culture so they can make a quick buck poking fun at scientists of the past?
Avatar of: Linda Spencer

Linda Spencer

Posts: 1

September 7, 2007

"For example, a 2006 study at the University of Western Ontario sought to find out if the average dog would seek help in an emergency. Cooperative dog owners pretended to have a heart attack while walking their pet. ... The dogs were not impressed. ... \nThe researchers concluded that most dog owners should not expect their pet to turn into Lassie during an emergency." \n\n...a good example of an odd conclusion, given that we know dogs sense impending seizures and diabetic comas. So I'd expect the conclusion to be that dogs don't seek help in fake emergencies.
Avatar of: Mary F.

Mary F.

Posts: 4

September 7, 2007

Not surprising about the different reactions other species have than do humans to LSD. That speaks to the inability to extrapolate the results of animal experimentation to people. \n\nA worthwhile undertaking would be a book about all the cruel, pointless and redundant research that has been inflicted on nonhuman animals. Except it couldn't all fit in a book, it would take volumes, and volumes, and volumes, etc., etc., etc.\n\n
Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

September 8, 2007

Mary, the mass of flesh sold in one month in your average USA supermarket is greater than all the higher animal flesh sacrificed in medical research in the whole nation. While this observation makes me buy vegetarian most of the time, I think it is utterly hypocritical and anti-human to carry on about experiments on animals before first shutting down eating of them. These experiments save human lives, millions and millions of them, when looked at collectively. There is no other way to do it. Sure, some of them aren't absolutely "necessary" but how to know which one isn't? That doesn't mean I don't cry about it sometimes, or that I would ever turn in the odd person who, after developing a relationship with a nice Rhesus monkey, steals it from a primate center and takes it home as a pet, unable to abide letting it be killed. \n\nThing is, I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that the very same ladies who are most vociferous about animals experiments and carry on so would send legions of animals to their deaths in an instant if it meant their own child would not die. Go to a burn ward, or childrens oncology unit, or any surgery ward for children. You will see them there and it will make you weep for a lifetime. Ask yourself how we will learn how to deal with burns better, or train doctors without working with animals for medicine? This is not easy. I don't like it either. \n\nBut there is another way to eat, Jains and many vegetarians demonstrate this. Those animals we eat die so that we of the West can get obese and dine out at fine restaurants, no? However, if all of us stopped eating meat, chicken, fish, would that improve the world? What about all those animals whose only reason for existing is to become human food? What about all those animals who would never live at all if there were not monkey experiments? Even chimpanzees, if there were experiments conducted on them again would have, thereby, another reason for being preserved as a species - one that might actually prevent their extinction.

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