Forgotten science: 7 of the strangest scientific theories in history

Science has a reputation for being one of the most logical and rational of human pastimes. But, as writer SD Tucker reveals in his new book, this has not always been the case. Here, the author of Forgotten Science shares some of history’s most curious scientific theories…

1) Darwinist fairies

In 1913, an English clergyman named Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854–1934) published a book titled The Hidden Side of Things, in which he tried to create a whole new branch of the evolutionary tree... for fairies.

Leadbeater elaborated his theory of “evolvement”, as he called it, showing how there were several distinct lines of fairy-evolution in nature. According to Leadbeater: “The life which is now animating fairies has come up through grasses and cereals, such as wheat and oats, when it was in the vegetable-kingdom, and afterwards through ants and bees when it was in the animal-kingdom. Now it has reached the level of these tiny nature-spirits.”

Once these insects had evolved into fairies, Leadbeater said, they became very pleasant to observe – and ‘observe’ them he did, helpfully laying out their different genera just like Darwin or Linnaeus would have done. According to Leadbeater, the different fairy-races have “colours of their own, marking the difference between their tribe or species, just as the birds have difference of plumage”.

Fairies being imaginary, of course, Leadbeater was unable to provide any physical proof of his assertions…

 

2) Nazi medicine

The Nazis performed many hideous experiments during their time in power, and some of the strangest were carried out by Dr Sigmund Rascher (1909–45).

Rascher was a physician who used his influence as an acquaintance of SS-head Heinrich Himmler to conduct a series of experiments upon prisoners within Dachau concentration camp.

One of Rascher’s most unusual experiments concerned freezing. Wishing to know the best way to treat pilots who had bailed out over the cold North Sea (and to simulate the conditions the German army were encountering on the Eastern Front), Rascher forced prisoners to stand outside naked in winter for as long as 14 hours, or alternatively immersed them in tanks of icy water. Then, he tried to revive them from unconsciousness by placing them in hot baths.

Himmler, though, had a different suggestion. The wives of North Sea fishermen, he declared, resuscitated their half-drowned husbands by taking them to bed and using their “animal warmth” upon them. To test the theory, Rascher brought in Romani women from Ravensbrück, stripped them and then forced hypothermia victims to lie in a kind of human sandwich between them. It was concluded, however, that hot-water baths were a more effective option.

Rascher’s downfall finally came not as a result of his incredible cruelty, but of his habit of kidnapping babies. Claiming to have found a new way to extend the female childbearing age, Rascher started publicising the ‘fact’ that his wife had given birth to three children despite being aged nearly 50. Impressed, Himmler used photos of the Rascher brood for propaganda purposes and was shocked to later discover that the babies had, in fact, been either stolen or bought to help Rascher get ahead in his career.

Rascher was ultimately imprisoned in Dachau [after first being imprisoned at Buchenwald] and summarily shot in April 1945.


Dr Sigmund Rascher (right) conducting one of his hypothermia experiments. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

 

3) Salt: the secret of life

The American homeopath Charles Wentworth Littlefield (1859–1945) claimed to have discovered the secret of life itself.

When patients came to him suffering from cuts, Littlefield would recite a short prayer to help them heal. One day Littlefield took a sample [presumably from a patient] of the organic body-salts that help clotting occur, and prayed over it while idly thinking about a chicken. Then, he examined the sample beneath a microscope. To his surprise, he found the crystal formation of the salts now resembled the very same chicken about which he had just been thinking!

Presuming he was telepathic, in 1919 Littlefield published a book in which he revealed that by concentrating really hard upon small piles of salt he had managed to make their crystals resemble America’s national mascot, Uncle Sam.

Equally as odd, when Littlefield left the salts alone they supposedly spontaneously developed into tiny animals such as crabs, apes, fishes and even miniature humans. Most were not alive, except for a race of microscopic octopuses, which for some reason were. This, said Littlefield, was how life on Earth began – by tiny octopuses generating themselves spontaneously from piles of psychic salt.

 

4) Apples have feelings too

The celebrated Swedish playwright and novelist August Strindberg (1849–1912) was not a scientist – but he certainly thought he was. There was the time, for instance, he decided that plants had nervous systems, even though nobody – neither gardener nor botanist – had ever noticed.

Determined to prove his theory, Strindberg took to carrying a syringe in his pocket during his early-morning walk and then injecting various pieces of vegetation he came across with morphine to see if they could get ‘high’. Being spotted one day by a passing policeman who caught him in the act of injecting a low-hanging apple with drugs, Strindberg was arrested. It was only when the great playwright began to explain what he was actually doing that he was eventually set free; the constable reasoning that he was simply a harmless eccentric, not a sinister fruit-poisoner.


August Strindberg. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

5) Hello, homunculus

A homunculus was a kind of artificial ‘little man’ that was supposed to be grown within vessels in laboratories by the alchemists of old. Undoubtedly the most famous account of creating one was provided by Paracelsus (1493–1541), a German-Swiss medical genius, chemist, astrologer, mystic, drunkard, notorious loudmouth and alchemist. In his book De Rerum Natura, Paracelsus instructs as follows: 

“Let the sperm of a man by itself be putrefied in a gourd-glass [and] sealed up ... in horse-dung, for the space of forty days, until so long as it begin to be alive, move and stir ... After this time, it will be something like a man, yet transparent, and without a body. Now after this, if it be every day warily and prudently nourished and fed with ... man’s blood, and be for the space of forty weeks kept in a constant, equal heat of horse-dung, it will become a true and living infant.”

Paracelsus actually claimed to have created a homunculus himself this way, which was 12 inches tall.

 

6) The life of birds

The masterpiece of Norfolk physician-philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605–82) was his 1646 book Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a massive catalogue of widely-believed fallacies, or “vulgar errors”, together with details of the incredibly odd experiments Browne had devised in order to test or disprove them.

One “vulgar error” Browne investigated was the peculiar notion that hanging a dead kingfisher from a string would transform it into an accurate weather-vane. Getting hold of just such a dead bird, Browne suspended it from a beam; he found it just dangled around at random. Obtaining another, he strung it up next to the first and found the animals twisted in different directions. Dead kingfishers, Browne had conclusively demonstrated, had no special ability to illustrate wind-direction.


Sir Thomas Browne. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

 

7) Younger than it looks…

Science and religion have often been in conflict. Perhaps the most ingenious attempt to reconcile the poetic testimony of the Bible with actual geological fact came from the Victorian zoologist Philip Gosse (1810–88). Gosse was a well-respected naturalist who was both the inventor of the aquarium and the world’s leading expert upon the genitalia of butterflies (strange but true), so the outrageous claims he made in his controversial 1857 book Omphalos: An Attempt to Untie the Geological Knot shocked the world of Victorian science.

In this much-mocked title, Gosse made the extraordinary assertion that all fossils and timeworn geological features were simply fakes that had been placed there by God to test our faith. The bones of extinct animals, the remnants of vanished volcanoes, the tell-tale signs that our landscapes have been formed over millions of years by the actions of glaciers and rivers – all, said Gosse, were created by Jehovah purely in order to make our planet seem more ‘realistic’.

Just as a set-designer might position food and dishes on a table on-stage from a meal that never really took place so as not to break the illusion of reality for theatre-goers, so God left the fossilised remains of animals like woolly mammoths that never really existed lying buried within rock-strata and sediments. Such was the Deity’s commitment to verisimilitude, Gosse explained, that he even went so far as to scatter the globe with fossilised dinosaur excrement!

Forgotten Science by SD Tucker is published by Amberley. To find out more, click here.

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