Illustration for article titled Who Was the Most Evil Scientist in History?

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Giz AsksGiz AsksIn this Gizmodo series, we ask questions about everything and get answers from a variety of experts.

The majority of scientists are, I’d wager, not particularly evil. Most just want to understand plants, or the Moon, or kidneys, or whatever. Conduct little experiments, marginally expand the stockpile of verifiable human truths, that kind of thing. Then there are the eugenicists, weapons/biowarfare specialists, corporate toadies, and genocide technicians who give those other scientists a bad name (and who, in their own perverse way, might think of themselves as little-experiment-conductors and truth-stockpile-expanders). The list of such names is long and spans centuries. But who among them was the most monstrous? Who is, flat-out, the most evil scientist in history? For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of experts for their take, and they were nearly uniform in their response: the Nazi scientist Josef Mengele. But there are other nominees, as you’ll see below, and some nearly manage to match him.


Amir Alexander

Associate Adjunct Professor, History, UCLA

Surely no scientist ever could have been more evil than Josef Mengele (1911-1979), the “The Angel of Death” from Auschwitz. He held two doctorates, one in anthropology from the University of Munich and one in medicine (cum laude) from the University of Frankfurt, which certainly qualifies him as a “scientist.”

An enthusiastic Nazi, Mengele joined the SS in 1938, and in 1943 was posted at his own request to the extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. As a camp doctor one of Mengele’s chief duties was to conduct “selections”—choosing the fortunate few among new arrivals who would be kept alive as slave-laborers, while sending the majority (including almost all children, mothers, and the elderly) to immediate death in the gas chambers. Whereas other SS doctors tried to avoid “selections,” Mengele often volunteered for additional shifts, reportedly whistling a tune as he pointed people to life or death with a flip of the thumb. At the gas chambers themselves, Mengele was one of those responsible for administering Zyklon B, the poison gas used for mass murder.

Mengele is perhaps most notorious for running a “research” clinic in Auschwitz, where he conducted sadistic experiments on children, especially twins. The overall goal was to support Nazi race science by “proving” that human heredity prevails over environmental factors. Many of the children died in agony during Mengele’s “experiments,” and many were murdered outright in order to compare their organs with those of the dead. The children who were no longer of use to Mengele were shipped directly to the gas chambers.

After the war Mengele escaped to Argentina. Despite efforts by West German authorities and the Israeli Mossad to bring him to justice, Mengele managed to elude capture. He died of drowning in 1979 in Bertioga, Brazil.

While Mengele is likely without peer in terms of sheer evil, I think Philipp Lenard (1862-1947) and Johannes Stark (1874-1957) deserve dishonorable mention due to their prominence: Both were Nobel Laureates in Physics, Lenard in 1905 and Stark in 1919. Lenard and Stark were enthusiastic Nazis, strong advocates of race science, and leaders of the Deutsche Physik movement, which sought to cleanse physics of corrupting Jewish influences. Both were harsh critics of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, which they denounced as “Jewish Physics” and a “Jewish fraud” because of its reliance on advanced abstract mathematics. A proper “Aryan” approach, in contrast, would adhere to a strict “grounded” empiricism and avoid mathematical flights of fancy. Under Hitler, Lenard and Stark launched a campaign that soon eliminated all Jews from German science, all the while trying to impose their preferred style of research on academic institutions. When Werner Heisenberg, who was not Jewish, defended Einstein’s theories, they had him labeled a “White Jew.”

On a personal note I would add that my aunt spent nine months in 1944-5 as a slave laborer in Auschwitz, during which she survived several close encounters with Mengele. My grandfather was a young Jewish physicist at the University of Freiburg when the Nazis came to power, and was fired as part of Lenard’s and Stark’s campaign.

Yves Gingras

Scientific Director, Observatoire des sciences et des technologies

Josef Mengele was a truly evil scientist. Trained in anthropology and medicine at Munich University, he became a member of the Nazi party and then a SS and in 1943 was sent to work at the Auschwitz concentration camp. He used that opportunity to make perverse experiments on living humans, and to “test” his own pet theories regarding the superiority of the “aryan” race. He thus made experiments on twins, amputating members, injecting typhus or transfusing blood between them. Using children, his human subjects were even better nourished than the other inmates of the camp in order to respond adequately to his “experiments.” Many died during these “experiments,” and he then made autopsies on them. Arrested by the Americans in 1945, Mengele, for some reasons, was not considered a war criminal, and he disappeared from sight in 1949, living under cover and a new name, in Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil, where he finally died.

Discovered after the end of the war, these incredible “experiments” led to the establishment of the Nuremberg code of conduct defining 10 criteria to which all human experiments should obey to be considered as ethical research.

Clive Hamilton

Professor, Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University, and the author of Defiant Earth: The fate of humans in the Anthropocene, among many other books

It’s a tricky question, because answering it depends on one’s philosophical standpoint. Is an “evil scientist” defined by his or her motivations (so-called virtue ethics or deontological ethics) or by the evil consequences of his or her scientific work (a consequentialist ethics)? In practice, the former stance would also need to take account of the consequences of the scientific work motivated by bad intentions.

Whichever prevails (and those adopting a consequentialist ethic would have an easier time answering the question), the choice of evil scientist is pretty subjective.

Having said all that, my choice would be Edward Teller, the “father of the hydrogen bomb,” because of his active promotion of nuclear weapons in the context of a deepening Cold War, a Cold War that he did a great deal to intensify. He was the hawk’s hawk, and highly influential among conservative political leaders who turned to him for advice. He even participated in the selection of Russian cities that should be nuked first.

Teller was the moving force behind the disastrous Reagan-era Star Wars program to militarize space. And he was a passionate advocate of the use of nuclear bombs for civilian purposes, like creating artificial harbors and obliterating inconvenient mountains.

Little wonder, then, that Edward Teller was the real-world model for the evil scientist in the 1964 Stanley Kubrick movie Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.


Robert N. Procter

Professor of the History of Science and Professor by courtesy of Pulmonary Medicine at Stanford University

The most evil scientist in human history? I can’t think of a better example than Dr. Helmut Wakeham, science supremo at Philip Morris from 1959 to 1981. Wakeham crafted much of the tobacco industry’s “doubt is our product” message, and it was Wakeham who developed the industry’s self-serving definition of causality, which held that cigarettes can’t cause cancer, because some people get cancer without having smoked, and some people smoke without getting cancer. QED. The lesson learned by countless copycat corporate killers: if your product causes cancer, just re-define causality so it doesn’t!

Wakeham did more than corrupt causality, however. He was in charge in the 1960s, when Philip Morris started freebasing the nicotine in its cigarettes, creating the “crack nicotine” counterpart to crack cocaine. And Wakeham was in charge when Philip Morris invented the Marlboro Man, the most successful marketing campaign in all of human history. Which turned a lit cigarette in the hand into “a timeless story of heroic men in a world of freedom”—according to one of the company’s propaganda films.

Wakeham also helped his death-dealing colleagues corrupt science—and on a massive scale. Philip Morris et al. funded hundreds of millions of dollars worth of science, but always science of a “cigarette friendly” sort—like behavioral genetics and research into viruses. Wakeham confessed as much when he didn’t think outsiders would be listening. In a 1970 letter to his boss, Joseph F. Cullman III, Wakeham wrote: “Let’s face it. We are interested in evidence which we believe denies the allegation that cigaret smoking causes disease.” The Marlboro men by this time were feeling the hot breath of litigation, so Wakeham decided to set up a massive (and secret) laboratory in Cologne, Germany, to conduct experiments beyond the reach of American litigators. Many of the researchers from that lab were forced to move to a new facility outside Brussels (in 1988), when Germany banned the use of animals for testing “luxury” products.

So Wakeham’s cruelty extended beyond humans. In 1969, for example, he contracted with a Dr. Ronald R. Hutchinson of the Fort Custer State Home (for the mentally retarded) in Augusta, Michigan, to conduct a series of studies exploring whether nicotine could relieve anxiety. Squirrel monkeys were used for this purpose: Hutchinson induced anxiety in these creatures by opening up their skulls and inserting electrodes, from which a pulse of electricity would induce an electric shock. The monkeys would then be injected with nicotine, to see whether that would calm them. Philip Morris’s “shock the monkey” experiments were kept secret, realizing that publicity might hurt the company’s image. Wakeham made sure that whatever results came from this perverse project would not be published without his permission.

Wakeham also trivialized death from cigarettes. In a 1976 interview for “Death in the West,” a British documentary featuring real-life cowboys dying from smoking, Wakeham was asked whether cigarettes were hazardous. His answer: Anything can cause harm if you get too much of it, “even applesauce.” When pushed to acknowledge that not many people were dying from applesauce, Wakeham quipped “They’re not eating that much!” Philip Morris realized that the film could hurt its reputation, so they sent an army of lawyers to the UK and got a Court to block distribution of the film in the U.S. or anywhere else. All copies were confiscated, and the film’s producers and editors were slapped with lifetime gag orders. Bootlegged snippets can be found on the Internet, but the film has never been broadcast nationally.

Evil is notoriously banal: Some of the diabolical deeds of human history spring from bureaucrats signing papers in smoke-filled rooms. Wholesale killing is facilitated by men who act as cogs in machines, and whose hands never literally become bloodied. Murder on a grand scale cannot be committed without thousands of accomplices, most of whom will never face justice. Killing at scale requires a thousand cloaks and reassurances, including subterfuge that infects even the way we speak. Yes, cigarettes kill five hundred thousand Americans every year, but smoking is a “personal choice.” The genius of Wakeham and his guilty ilk has been to individualize the epidemic, while invisibilizing its ultimate source.

There are different ways to measure the evil caused by the cigarette mafia: every cigarette you smoke takes about 10 minutes off your life; cigarettes kill about 500,000 Americans annually, more than 10 times that globally. Wakeham’s crew is responsible for a big chunk of that catastrophe. If cigarettes kill one person for every million smoked, then the 4 trillion cranked out under Wakeham’s watch (1959-81) killed about 4 million Americans. If that is not evil, then I don’t know the meaning of the word.


Paul Weindling

Professor, History of Medicine, Oxford Brookes University, and the author, most recently, of Victims and Survivors of Nazi Human Experiments: Science and Suffering in the Holocause

Many would say the Nazi physician Josef Mengele because of his selections of Jews and other “racial” undesirables at Auschwitz. From May 1944 he selected arriving Hungarian Jews for the gas chambers.

It is often said that Mengele selected 3,000 twins for experimental research. Research on records of bacteriological tests shows the number was more like 700, and most survived. At the end of the research in December 1944 Mengele did not kill the twins, although certainly a few died in his custody. Mengele was there a major perpetrator of the Holocaust at Auschwitz. Most of the twins selected for his experimental research survived. So a perpetrator of genocide yes; a mass murderer of research subjects, he was not good but not the worst in history.


Xaq Frohlich

Assistant Professor, History of Technology, Auburn University

While there are a wide variety of ways that some past scientists have been “evil,” I would think that a lead candidate for the “most evil scientist” in history, certainly the most notorious, would be Dr. Josef Mengele. Mengele was a Nazi physician who conducted experiments on the mostly Jewish prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. He was known as the “Angel of Death” by the prisoners, because of the inhumane and cruel methods he used, which included bone grafting, hypothermia, and twin studies where he subjected one twin to agonizing physical mutilations to explore his eugenicist racial theories of inheritance. Mengele even collected the eyes of his murdered victims because of his personal fascination with heterochromia, a condition where a person’s eyes differ in coloration. I would nominate Mengele for most evil scientist because of this disturbing combination of cold, calculated reasoning and cruel, barbaric sadism. After the war he succeeded, unfortunately, in evading arrest for his war crimes; however the notoriety of his callous and inhumane human experiments played a part in the rise of research ethical review boards and the field of bioethics.


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