Scientists behaving badly

Scientists behaving badly

Scientists aren't always on their best behaviour

Do you think all scientists are well behaved? You're wrong! Most scientists are well-behaved, dedicated to their work and completely honest. But not all of them. Check out our five scientists behaving badly.

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison was a brilliant inventor. He developed lots of things we take for granted, including the lightbulb. But he also used dirty tricks to try and win his fights.

Edison was involved in the War of Currents against George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. Edison wanted to use direct current (DC) to transmit electricity across the US. Westinghouse and Tesla wanted to use alternating current (AC). The winner of the War of Currents would be able to use their company to transmit electricity across the US, which would earn a lot of money.


Inventing the lightbulb: good. Killing animals: bad.

Edison used dirty tricks against Westinghouse and Tesla. He invented the electric chair and powered it using AC, to suggest that AC was deadlier than DC.  His employees used AC to kill animals, including cats, dogs, cows and horses, to suggest to the press that AC was more dangerous than DC.

Inventing a new form of capital punishment and killing lots of animals? That's definitely a scientist behaving badly.

Barry Marshall

Would you swallow a dish of dangerous bacteria to prove your theory? Barry Marshall did! Marshall was investigating the cause of peptic ulcers, painful sores in stomach and intestine linings. Most scientists thought that peptic ulcers were caused by stress, spicy foods and too much stomach acid.


Mmm tasty, dangerous bacteria

Marshall thought that bacteria called H. pylori caused peptic ulcers. Marshall tried to infect piglets with the bacteria, to show that bacteria caused peptic ulcers, but it didn't work. So what did he do next? He drank a Petri dish full of H. pylori! H. pylori can cause fatal ulcers, so he was taking a risk.

Marshall didn't expect to develop an ulcer for years, so he was surprised when he started feeling unwell within a week! The bacteria were affecting his stomach. Marshall and his collaborator Robin Warren were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work linking H. pylori to peptic ulcers.

Thanks Vicki Symington for that suggestion!

Edward Jenner

Jenner is famous for pioneering vaccination. Some people say his work has saved more lives than the work of any other man. So what has Jenner done that's so bad?

Jenner thought that cowpox, a non-fatal infection caught from cows, would provide immunity against smallpox, an often fatal disease. To prove that vaccination worked, Jenner needed to test his theory.


Jenner invented vaccination, but were his experiments ethical?

Jenner found a milkmaid suffering from cowpox and took some of the pus from the blisters on her arm. He then infected James Phipps, an eight-year-old boy, with cowpox. Phipps caught cowpox as Jenner expected. But, to test his theory, Jenner needed to infect Phipps with smallpox. Luckily, the vaccination worked and Phipps didn't catch smallpox.

Now, vaccinations are tested rigorously before being tested on humans. What if Jenner's vaccination hadn't worked? Phipps could have died. However, Jenner's work has saved millions of lives. Do you think he was right to experiment on a child?


Galileo is a very famous scientist. He is known as the father of modern physics for the many experiments he carried out. Galileo discovered the first four of Jupiter's moons, improved the telescope and made significant discoveries about gravity and pendulums. But even Galileo behaved badly sometimes.

Galileo supported the theory that the Earth revolves around the Sun. We know that's true, but at the time this theory was very controversial. Galileo was put under house arrest for years for supporting this theory. Galileo thought that tides would help him prove that the Earth revolved around the Sun.


Galileo was a great scientist, but even he behaved badly

Galileo made mathematical arguments to show that the Earth moving around the Sun caused the tides. But his maths showed only one high tide per day, even though Galileo knew there were two high tides per day. Also, a scientist called Kepler had already shown that tides were mainly due to the moon.

When people pointed this out to Galileo, he called them silly and childish. Still, we remember Galileo for his groundbreaking scientific thinking rather than his mathematical mistakes. I think if I was under house arrest, I'd be tempted to use mathematical fraud to get out!

John B. Watson

The psychologist John B. Watson wanted to find out if children could be made to fear something they hadn't been afraid of before. Watson experimented on a 9 month old baby called Little Albert. Whenever Little Albert tried to play with a white rat, a loud noise sounded in the background. Little Albert was afraid of the noise and cried whenever he heard it.

White rats_106404230

Watson made Little Albert afraid of white rats

Watson repeated the experiment over and over again until Albert became scared of the white rat. Eventually, Little Albert became afraid of anything that was white and furry including rabbits, coats and even Santa Claus!

The researchers taught Albert to be afraid. The sad thing about this study is that Albert left the hospital before Watson could reverse the effects of the experiment. Little Albert left the hospital with fears that he didn't have before. Do you think it is OK for scientists to do that?

Sign up for the newsletter
Sign Up For The Newsletter
Want to get the latest science news from Planet Science straight to your inbox? Sign up now!