Science's brain flatulence: Historians and actors to relate moments that weren't quite right

An 1887 photograph shows French neurologist Jean Martin-Charcot mesmerizing a woman into a state of hysteria.
An 1887 photograph shows French neurologist Jean Martin-Charcot mesmerizing a woman into a state of hysteria.
Posted: April 15, 2011

Even the best scientists and doctors get things wrong. The great physician Benjamin Rush tortured yellow-fever victims with a "treatment" that involved purging and flatulence. Charles Darwin made sexist statements that would get him drummed out of most universities.

As Philadelphia launches a two-week celebration of science on Friday, a group of historians are planning their presentation of the bloopers and blunders, the dated and the discredited. Their program, called Seemed Right at the Time?! Scenes From Science Past, will combine historical talks with acting by Philadelphia Improv Theater (no, not the scientists). The event will be April 28 at the Wagner Free Institute of Science.

"History teaches us to be humble about our own views," said Diane Paul, a historian at the University of Massachusetts, who will be speaking about Darwin's less-than-exalted writings. "Fifty years from now, people will look back on us and have no trouble identifying views that make us look completely ridiculous."

The free evening program is being put together by the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science, a consortium of local organizations. The group was formed in 2007, partly to help scholars from around the world gain access to scientific and historical collections here, said the group's executive director, Babak Ashrafi. If you want to learn how science changes and how it changes lives, he said, there is no place like Philadelphia.

Sharrona Pearl, an assistant professor at Penn's Annenberg School for Communication, will recount the popular theory known as mesmerism, named after the 18th-century German physician Anton Mesmer. The technique was used to put people under a kind of trance. It was thought to involve mysterious fluids and a force that Mesmer called animal magnetism.

Sometimes, Pearl said, women could be mesmerized into a state resembling physical ecstasy - perhaps one reason that it was so popular.

Not everyone believed uncritically in mesmerism. In 1784, France set up a commission to investigate the practice. Among the panelists was Benjamin Franklin. The commission concluded that no special fluid was involved with mesmerism, the effects of which were attributed to "imagination."

Some of yesteryear's bad science came from good scientists, such as Darwin. In The Origin of Species, he stuck closely to observation of plants and animals. But in his next book, The Descent of Man, he extended his observations to humans. Women surpassed men in tenderness, intuition and selflessness, he wrote, but men far exceeded women in energy, courage, ambition, intelligence, perseverance, and reasoning ability.

Darwin didn't invent that view; it was the prevailing picture of the sexes in his time. Still, it was not universal. Philosopher John Stuart Mill took the position that women were being held back by the legal and social systems of the time, said Paul, the UMass historian, not by any lack of natural ability. Mill held similar views about race - a topic on which Darwin had mixed views, said Paul.

Michael Yudell, a historian of science at Drexel, studies how science was used to bolster racist views. He thought that was too serious a topic for a program involving improvisational comedy, however, so he will talk instead about Benjamin Rush and his "cure" for yellow fever.

Not that yellow fever was funny, but at least it's not still with us.

Yudell said ideas that are considered racist today were simply part of the scientific body of knowledge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Philadelphia, for example, anthropologist Samuel Morton was measuring the skulls of people from around the world and using his findings to try to prove that whites had larger brains and therefore higher intelligence. The late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould debunked Morton's science in his book The Mismeasure of Man.

Yudell also studies the history - past and present - of autism, which was long blamed on bad mothering, or, more specifically, on cold, unfeeling, "refrigerator" mothers. That was not just wrong, he said, but often ruinous for families.

While alternative theories of autism emerged in the 1950s, Yudell said the tendency to blame mothers persisted into the 1990s. The currently popular theory that childhood vaccines cause autism grew as a backlash. It's still wrong, he said, but perhaps more understandable.

"You see this inversion in the 1990s where people want to blame the doctors, blame the science, blame the vaccine preservative," Yudell said. "For those who are dismissive of the anti-vaccine movement as it relates to autism, I urge caution because it's coming from a historical place in which there's been a half-century of abuse."

More Information

Philadelphia Science Festival: Runs through April 28 around the city.

Call 215-448-1128 or visit

"Seemed Right at the Time?! Scenes from Science Past": Event will be 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. April 28 at the Wagner Free Institute of Science, 1700 W. Montgomery Ave.

Admission is free, but reservations are required.

Contact staff writer Faye Flam

at 215-854-4977 or Visit her "Planet of the Apes" blog at

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