The history of science and medicine is full of people who have done horrific things—and the bestseller lists are equally full of proof that we’re fascinated by them. Are they simply bad apples? Or are there darker forces at work that turn scientists into monsters? Two new books examine these questions in very different ways.
In The Case of the Murderous Dr. Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer, Dean Jobb dives into the life of Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, aka the Lambeth Poisoner, who is believed to have killed at least 10 victims, including his own wife and the husband of one of his mistresses, in three different countries. Many of his victims were prostitutes or unmarried working-class women who sought abortions from the sympathetic Dr. Cream but received fatal doses of strychnine instead. Eventually he began stalking the music halls and bordellos of London in search of victims.
Cream was hardly a criminal genius. Tall with a distinctive squint and an equally distinguishing top hat, he had a bad habit of calling attention to his crimes. He nonetheless eluded Scotland Yard for months, primarily because of police indifference to the fate of “fallen women.”
Raised in a wealthy but strict religious family, Cream seemed to be an archetypal Jekyll/Hyde character—Sunday School teacher and respected physician by day, poisoner by night. It would be easy to paint him as purely evil, but Jobb, a true crime reporter and teacher of creative nonfiction at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia, creates a nuanced portrait of Cream that’s much more chilling than Mr. Hyde. Yes, Cream was a remorseless killer, but he was also warped by Victorian hypocrisy, misogyny and classism—the same factors that allowed him to hide his crimes while hunting for more victims.
In The Icepick Surgeon: Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science, Sam Kean takes a more systemic approach to examining why good doctors and scientists go bad. Kean looks at 12 case histories of people in these professions running off the rails: patients needlessly lobotomized, individuals and communities destroyed in the name of research, thousands of prisoners convicted on the basis of fraudulent forensic evidence and worse.
Sometimes the crime was committed by someone who just happened to be a scientist, such as a Harvard anatomist who found a grisly but scientifically sound method of dealing with an annoying creditor. Others, like Thomas Edison, were indifferent to the pain of others in the quest for scientific glory and wealth. In many cases, the crime was the result of the scientist’s fanatical devotion to finding “truth,” no matter the cost. But the worst crimes included here weren’t even recognized as such at the time because society accepted them as normal, even moral. That was how Henry Smeathman, an 18th-century natural historian and abolitionist, became a trader of enslaved people to fund his expeditions.
Kean is a podcaster with a gift for making science understandable. His writing style is conversational and witty—but he never forgets the real human costs of these crimes. The more powerful science becomes, the more subject it is to abuse, he says. And yet, Kean remains optimistic about the potential of science and medicine to do good, if scientists and nonscientists alike take action. He argues that diverse voices, enforced standards and critical appraisal of scientific assumptions would make crimes like the ones in The Icepick Surgeon more detectable and preventable—and science more trustworthy.