The Poet’s Brain

What does poet Walt Whitman have to do with an autopsy manual?

Here’s a post about a curious book, and a mystery that lasted more than a century.


A few days ago I added to my library a book I had been looking for for some time: a 1903 first edition of Post Mortem Pathology by Dr. Henry Ware Cattell.

It is a well-known, thoroughly-illustrated autoptic manual detailing the methods used to carry out post-mortem examinations at the end of the 19th century.

On the title page one can find a tasty quote in Italian from the Divine Comedy:

These verses come from Chant XXVIII of Dante’s Inferno, describing the punishment inflicted on Muhammad (translation: “Rent from the chin to where one breaketh wind. / Between his legs were hanging down his entrails; / His heart was visible, and the dismal sack / That maketh excrement of what is eaten“), and they are quoted here as a clear allusion to autopsies, which offer a similar macabre spectacle.

Post Mortem Pathology is an interesting book for at least two historical reasons.

First, it contains some “advice” on how to obtain consent from the dead person’s relatives in order to perform an autopsy; but it would be more correct to say that Cattell gives indications on how to deceive the deceased’s family members, obtaining consent for example from someone “connected with the household, though not necessarily from the nearest relative“, taking care not to specify which anatomical parts are to be preserved, etc. Dr. Cattell also complains about the absence of a law allowing autopsies on all those who die in hospitals, without distinction.

As James R. Wright writes, these are “unique and important insights into local autopsy consent “practice” in Philadelphia in the 1880s which allowed […] pathologists to get away with performing autopsies at Blockley Hospital without legal consent. […] these questionable and highly paternalistic approaches to autopsy consent, although morally incomprehensible now, permitted outstanding clinicopathological correlations which made Blockley an excellent teaching environment.” (1)James R. Wright Jr., Henry Ware Cattell and Walt Whitman’s Brain, in Clinical Anatomy, 31:988–996 (2018)

Second, Cattell’s book describes the procedure, originally developed by the gynecologist Howard Kelly, to perform the removal of the internal organs per vaginam, per rectum, and per perineum. (2)Julius P. Bonello, George E. Tsourdinis, Howard Kelly’s avant-garde autopsy method, Hektoen International Journal of Medical Humanities (2020) .

The method consisted of incising the vagina in women, or the anus in men; by inserting the arm up to his shoulder inside the body, the anatomist proceeded to pierce the diaphragm and remove the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and the rest of the organs through that single cut.

Why all this effort? One might ask.

The answer is unfortunately linked to what we said above: it was a trick to perform an autopsy in the absence of legal consent; the organs were removed without disturbing the external appearance of the body, so that the relatives would not notice anything unusual.

But the real curiosity linked to this book is the fact that its author was implicated in a very peculiar incident.



In 1892 one of the most famous and celebrated American poets, Walt Whitman, died.

By the end of the 19th century, phrenology had already been discredited, yet it was still believed that the brains of “geniuses” could show some difference compared to those of normal people; this was the reason why in Philadelphia, as in other cities, there existed a Brain Club, a nickname for the Anthropometric Society, a — more or less secret — lodge  of doctors and pathologists who took care of preserving the brains of illustrious men. (Clearly just male brains, not women’s, but that’s OK.)

Famous pathologist William Osler, a member of the “Brain Club”, performing a brain autopsy ath the Bockley morgue in Philadelphia.

A reunion of anatomists in Philadelphia.

Henry Cattell was part of it, and at the time of Whitman’s death he held the position of prosector, that is, the one who did the “dirty work” by opening and dissecting the body.
He was therefore the one who dealt with the poet’s corpse during the autopsy that took place at Whitman’s house in Mickle Street on March 27, 1892, under the supervision of prof. Francis Dercum.

The brain of the immortal cantor of the “electric body” was removed and entrusted to Cattell to join those of the other important intellectuals preserved in liquid by the Anthropometric Society.

At this point, though, something went horribly wrong, and the precious organ disappeared into thin air.

This enigmatic incident changed Cattell’s life forever, making him doubt his talents as a pathologist so much that he decided to increasingly rarefy his commitments in the autopsy room, and to devote himself to scientific publications. Post Mortem Pathology represents, in fact, the first release of his publishing house.

But what had really happened?

The first testimony about it was published in 1907 in a paper by Dr. Edward Spitzka, which was apparently based on Cattell’s confidences to some members of the Society. Spitzka wrote that “the brain of Walt Whitman, together with the jar in which it had been placed, was said to have been dropped on the floor by a careless assistant. Unfortunately, not even the pieces were saved.(3)Edward Spitzka, A study of the brains of six eminent scientists and scholars belonging to the American Anthropometric Society, together with a description of the skull of Professor E. D. Cope, in Trans Am Philos Soc 21:175–308 (1907)

The news caused quite a sensation, so much so that it evidently entered the common imagination: this episode was likely the inspiration for the Frankenstein (1931) scene in which the Doctor’s assistant, who breaks into the university in search of a brain for the Creature, drops the jar with the “normal” brain and steals the “abnormal” one.

But, as James R. Wright writes, “what could not be understood is why the fragments had been discarded as there still would have been some value in examining these. Less clear was whether it was an assistant or Cattell who destroyed Walt Whitman’s brain.

Be that as it may, in the absence of further clues, for more than a century this remained the official version. Then, in 2012, Cattell’s secret diary appeared on an eBay auction.

Henry W. Cattell during WWI.

The diary does not directly mention the autopsy, but from when it was performed in March 1892 until October of the same year Cattell’s notes have an optimistic tone — it had been a positive and finacially rewarding period of work. Then, starting from October 14, the entries in the diary become much more dark and worried: Cattell seems to suddenly doubt his own abilities, even coming as far as to have suicidal thoughts.

Here is the chronology of his entries, outlining a very different story from that of the assistant dropping the preparation on the ground:

13 ottobre 1892 — “Prepare specimens for path. soc. [Pathological Society of Philadelphia].”

14 ottobre 1892 — “I am a fool.”

16 ottobre 1892 — “I wish that I knew of the best way of keeping an account of my work. It often seems to me that I am so forgetful and yet I remember certain things which others might not be able to mind.”

13 aprile 1893 — “I am a peculiar man in many ways. Why did I get rid of Edwards—in all probability because I was jealous of him.”

15 maggio 1893 — “I am a fool, a damnable fool, with no conscious memory, or fitness for any learned position. I left Walt Whitman’s brain spoil by not having the jar properly covered. Discovered it in the morning. This ruins me with the Anthropometric Society, and Allen, perhaps with Pepper, Kerlin &c. How I ever got in such financial straights [I] do [not] know. When I broke with Edwards I should have told him to go to thunder. Borrowed over $500 more from P & M [Pa and Ma]. They are too good & kind. I would have killed my self before this a dozen times over if it had not been for them.”

18 settembre 1893 — “I should be happy and I suppose in my way I am. Except for my parents I could go to Africa or die and I w[ou]ld be in no way missed.”

30 settembe 1893 — “I look back on my confidence and self possession of last year as somehow wonderful. I now know that I do not know enough pathology for the position which I occupy.”

So here’s the truth: Cattell had badly sealed the jar containing Whitman’s brain; the liquid had probably evaporated, and the organ had dried out, decomposed or been attacked and damaged by some mold. Cattell blamed his assistant Edwards, who had probably started to blackmail him, threatening to tell the truth; this extortion, in addition to Cattell’s financial problems, had forced him to borrow money from his parents, throwing Cattell into a state of depression and mistrust in his abilities.

By publishing Cattell’s diary excerpts for the first time in 2014, Sheldon Lee Gosline wrote:

“Then, too, why put this incriminating evidence down on paper at all, risking public exposure? Clearly Cattell wanted to leave a confession that one day would become public—which now, 120 years later, has finally happened.” (4)Gosline, Sheldon Lee. “I am a fool”: Dr. Henry Cattell’s Private Confession about What Happened to Whitman’s Brain. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 31 (2014), 158-162.


June 9, 1924.

Cattell was now 61 years old, and 32 years had passed since Whitman’s unfortunate autopsy.

At the time, as Gosline points out, Cattell “not only had his university staff income, but also charged assistants to privately assist him, provided post-mortems and expert testimony for a fee, ran a medical journal for a profit, and was a successful and lauded author. All of this was possible because he had evaded disgrace from the Whitman incident.

His luck came from having kept silent regarding his incompetence in preserving the brain of a poet, and it is with a poem that, in a very proper way, the pathologist ends his diaries. These verses sound like a sort of balance sheet of his whole life. And the image that emerges is that of a guilt-ridden soul, convinced that his entire honored career has been earned through fraud; a man divided between a pleasant economic security, which he cannot give up, and the need to confess his imposture.


Perhaps the only one who could have smiled at this whole matter would have been Walt Whitman himself, aware that the individual body (container of “multitudes“) is nothing more than a mere transitory expression of the universal: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.(5)Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’, Leaves of Grass (1855)

Note   [ + ]

1. James R. Wright Jr., Henry Ware Cattell and Walt Whitman’s Brain, in Clinical Anatomy, 31:988–996 (2018)
2. Julius P. Bonello, George E. Tsourdinis, Howard Kelly’s avant-garde autopsy method, Hektoen International Journal of Medical Humanities (2020)
3. Edward Spitzka, A study of the brains of six eminent scientists and scholars belonging to the American Anthropometric Society, together with a description of the skull of Professor E. D. Cope, in Trans Am Philos Soc 21:175–308 (1907)
4. Gosline, Sheldon Lee. “I am a fool”: Dr. Henry Cattell’s Private Confession about What Happened to Whitman’s Brain. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 31 (2014), 158-162.
5. Walt Whitman, ‘Song of Myself’, Leaves of Grass (1855)

“A Tiny Red Hole”: Horrible Stories of Needles

Sometimes the smallest objects can turn out to be the most useful. And the most frightening.
Who doesn’t feel at least a vague repulsion, a little shiver upon seeing a needle entering the skin?

You guessed it: this article is devoted to needles in bizarre clinical contexts. If you are among the 10% of the population who suffer from needle phobia, then you should skip this post… or maybe not.

Prehistoric Needles
An invention older than Man himself

Let’s begin with a little curiosity that isn’t really relevant to this article, but I find fascinating: pictured above is the most ancient needle ever recovered by archaeologists… and it’s not a human artifact.

7 centimeters-long, carved from the bone of an unidentified bird, this perfect needle (complete with an eye to insert a thread) was produced more than 50.000 years ago – not by proper Homo sapiens, but by the mysterious Denisova hominin: settled on mount Altaj in Siberia, these human predecessors are partly still an enigma for paleontologists. But this needle, found in 2016 from their cave, is a proof of their technological advancement.

Needles Under The Skin
The inexplicable delay of Western medicine

Going from sewing needles to medical needles was a much later conquest than you might imagine.
It shouldn’t have been that difficult to see how injecting a drug directly under the skin might be an effective kind of treatment. Norman Howard-Jones begins his Critical Study of the Origins and Early Development of Hypodermic Medication (1947) by noting that:

The effects of the bites of venomous snakes and insects pointed clearly to the possibility of the introduction of drugs through punctures in the skin. In primitive societies, the application for therapeutic purposes of plant and animal products through cutaneous incisions is practiced […], and the use of poisoned arrows may be regarded as a crude precursor of hypodermic and intramuscular medication.

We could trace another “crude precursor” of intramuscular injections back to Sir Robert Christison‘s 1831 proposal, suggesting that whalers fix a vial of prussic acid to their harpoons in order to kill whales more quickly.

And yet, despite of all these clues, the first proper hypodermic injection for strict medical purposes did not take place before mid-Nineteenth Century. Until then, syringes (which had been around for centuries) were mainly used for suction, for instance to draw the fluids which accumulated in abscesses. Enemas and nasal irrigation were used since Roman times, but nobody had thought to inject medications under the skin.

Physicians had tried, with varying results, to scar the epydermis with irritants and to deposit the drug directly on the resultin ulcer, or they sliced the skin with a lancet, as in bloodletting, and inserted salts (for example morphine) through the cut. In 1847, G. V. Lafargue was the first to have the intuition of combining inoculation with acupuncture, and to build a long and thick hollow needle filled with morphine paste. But other methods were being tested, such as sawing a silk thread, imbued in drugs, directly into the patient’s skin.

The first true hypodermic syringe was invented in 1853 by Scottish doctor Alexander Wood, as reported in his New Method of Treating Neuralgia by Subcutaneous Injection (1855). Almost at the same time, the French physician Charles Pravaz had devised his own version. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, hypodermic injections had become a widespread procedure in the medical field.

Needles In The Flesh
The bizarre clinical case of the “needle woman”

Published in 1829 by Giuseppe Ferrario, Chief Surgeon at the Ospedale Maggiore in Milan, La donna dagli aghi reports a strange case that began in June 1828.

A young 19-year-old woman, Maria Magni, “peasant, of scrofulous appearance, but with a passionate temper” was admitted to the hospital because of severe pain.
One April morning, the year before, she had found a light blue piece of paper on the ground which contained 70/80 steel sewing needles. In order not to lose them, she had pinned them on her blouse cuff. But Maria suffered from epileptic fits, and a few hours later, as she was working in the vineyard, “she fell victim of the usual spasms, and convulsive bouts. Under these abnormal and violent muscular movements […] she believes that she unwillingly pushed the needles she had pinned to her shirt through her right arm – which was naked, as is the case among our peasants – as well as through her breast”. The needles didn’t cause her any trouble until three months later, when the pain had become unbearable; she then decided to go to the hospital.

The doctor on duty hesitated to admit her, for fear she had syphilis: Magni had tried alternative treatments, and had applied “many varied remedies, catplasms, ointments, blistering drugs and other ulcerating substances, etc, with the intention of exciting the needles out of her skin”, but this only resulted in her body being covered by sores.
Enter Doctor Ferrario, who during the first 35 days of treatment submitted her to bloodletting for 16 times, applied more than 160 leeches to her temples, administered vesicants, frictions, decoctions, salts and various tinctures. But the daily epileptic fits were terrible, and nothing seemed to work: “all the physicians, stunned by the woman’s horrible condition, predicted an approaching and inevitable death”.

Upon hearing the story of the needles, though, Ferrario began to wonder if some of them were still sticking inside the young woman’s body. He examined her wounds and actually started feeling something thin and hard within the flesh; but touching those spots triggered some epileptic fits of unheard violence. Ferrario described these bouts with typical 19th-Century literary flourishes, in the manner of Gothic novels, a language which today sounds oddly inappropriate in a medical context:

the poor wretched girl, pointing her nape and feet, pushed her head between her shoulders while jumping high above the bed, and arched her bust and arms on the account of the spasmodic contraction of dorsal muscles […] she was shaking and screaming, and angrily wrapped her body in her arms at the risk of suffocating […]. There was involuntary loss of urine and feces […]. Her gasping, suffocated breath, her flaccid and wrinkled breast which appeared beneath her hirst, torn to pieces; the violence with which she turned her head on her neck, and with which she banged it against the walls and threw it back, hanging from the side of the bed; her red and bulging eyes, sometimes dazed, sometimes wide open, almost coming out of their socket, glassy and restless; the obscene clenching of her teeth, the foamy, bloody matter that she squirted and vomited from her dirty mouth, her swollen and horribly distorted face, her black hair, soaked in drool, which she flapped around her cranium […] all this inspired the utmost disgust and terror, as it was the sorrowful image of an infernal fury.

Ferrario then began extracting the needles out of the woman’s body, performing small incisions, and his record went on and on much in the same way: “this morning I discovered a needle in the internal superior region of the right breast […] After lunch, having cut the upper part of the arm as usual, I extracted the needle n. 14, very rusty, with its point still intact but missing the eye […] from the top of the mons pubis I extracted the needle n. 24, rusty, without point nor eye, of the length of eight lines.

The pins were hard to track down, they moved across the muscles from one day to the other, so much so that the physician even tried using big horseshoe magnets to locate the needles.
The days went by, and as the number of extracted needles grew, so did the suspect that the woman might be cheating on the doctors; Maria Magni just kept expelling needles over and over again. Ferrario began to wonder whether the woman was secretly inserting the needles in her own body.
But before accusing her, he needed proof. He had them searched, kept under strict surveillance, and he even tried to leave some “bait” needles lying around the patient’s bed, to see if they disappear. Nothing.

In the meantime, starting from extraction number 124, Miss Magni began throwing up needles.
The physician had to ask himself: did these needles arrive into the digestive tract through the diaphragm? Or did Magni swallow them on purpose? One thing is sure: vomiting needles caused the woman such distress that “having being so unwell, I doubt she ever swallowed any more after that, but she might have resorted to another less uncomfortable and less dangerous opening, to continue her malicious introduction of needles in the body”.
The “less uncomfortable opening” was her vagina, from which many a new needle was removed.

As if all this was not enough, rumors had spread that the “needle woman” was actually a witch, and hospital patients began to panic.

An old countrywoman, recovering in the bed next to Magni’s, became convinced that the woman had been victim of a spell, and then turned into a witch on the account of the magic needles. Being on the bed next to her, the old lady believed that she herself might fall under the spell. She didn’t want to be touched by the young woman, nor by me, for she believed I could be a sorcerer too, because I was able to extract the needles so easily. This old lady fell for this nonsense so that she started screaming all day long like a lunatic, and really became frenzied and delirious, and many leeches had to be applied to her head to calm her down.

Eventually one day it was discovered where Magni had been hiding the needles that she stuck in her body:

Two whole needles inside a ball of yarn; four whole needles wrapped in paper between the mattress and the straw, all very shiny; a seventh needle, partly rusted, pinned under a bed plank. Several inmates declared that Maria Magni had borrowed four needles from them, not returning them with the excuse that they had broken. The ill-advised young woman, seeing she was surrounded and exposed […] faked violent convulsions and started acting like a demon, trashing the bed and hurting the assistants. She ended by simulating furious ecstasy, during which she talked about purely fictional beings, called upon the saints and the devils, then began swearing, then horribly blasphemed angels, saints, demons, physicians, surgeons and nurses alike.

After a couple of days of these performance, Magni confessed. She had implanted the needles herself under her skin, placed them inside her vagina and swallowed them, taking care of hiding the pierced areas until the “tiny red hole” had cicatrized and disappeared.
In total, 315 needles were retrieved from Maria Magni’s body.
In the epilogue of his essay, Ferrario points out that this was not even the first recorded case: in 1821, 363 needles were extracted from the body of young Rachel Hertz; another account is about a girl who survived for more than 24 years to the ingestion of 1.500 needles. Another woman, Genueffa Pule, was born in 1763 and died at the age of 37, and an autopsy was carried out on her body: “upon dissecting the cadaver, in the upper, inner part of each thigh, precisely inside the triceps, masses of pins and needles were found under the teguments, and all the muscles teemed with pins and needles”.

Ferrario ascribes the motivations of these actions to pica, or superstition. Maria claimed that she had been encouraged by other women of the village to swallow the needles in order to emulate the martyr saints, as a sort of apotropaic ritual. More plausibly, this was just a lie the woman told when she saw herself being cornered.

In the end, the physician admits his inability to understand:

It is undoubtedly a strange thing for a sane person to imagine how pain – a sensation shunned even by the most ignorant people, and abhorred by human nature – could be sometimes sought out and self-inflicted by a reasonable individual.

I wonder what would Ferrario say today, if he could see some practices such as play piercing or body suspension performances.

Needles In The Brain
A dreadful legacy

As I was going through pathology archives, in search of studies that could have some similarities with the Magni story, I came upon one, then two, then several other reports regarding an even more unbelievable occurrence: sewing needles found in the encephalon of adult patients, often during routine X-rays.

Intracranial foreign bodies are rare, and usually result from trauma and operations; but neither the 37-year-old patient admitted in 2004, nor the 45-year-old man in 2005, nor the 82-year-old Italian woman in 2010, nor the 48-year-old Chinese woman in 2015 had suffered any major cranial trauma or undergone head surgery.
An apparently impossible enigma: how did those needles get there?

The answer is quite awful. These are all cases of failed infanticide.

The possibility of infanticide by inserting pins through the fontanelle is mentioned in the Enciclopedia legale ovvero Lessico ragionato by F. Foramiti (1839), where the author includes a (chilling) list of all the methods with which a mother can kill her own child, among which appears the “puncturing the fontanelle and the brain with a thin sharp dagger or a long and strong needle”.

But the practice, properly documented in medical literature only by 1914, already appeared in Persian novels and texts: perhaps the fact that the method was well-known in the ancient Middle East, is the reason why most of the forty recorded cases were documented in Turkey and Iran, with a minority coming from Southeast Asia, Europe and the United States. In Italy there were two known cases, one in 1987 and the 2010 case mentioned above.

Most of these patients didn’t show any particular neurological symptom: the sewing needles, having been embedded in the brain for so many years, are not even removed; a surgical procedure, at this point, would be more dangerous than leaving them in situ.
This was the case for the only known occurrence reported in Africa, a 4-year-old child carrying a 4,5 cm needle through his brain. At the time the report was filed, in 2014, the needle was still there: “no complications were noted, the child had normal physical and mental development with excellent performance at school”.

Of course, discovering at the age of forty that someone – your parents, or maybe your grandparents – tried to kill you when you were just months old must be a shock.
It happened to Luo Cuifen, a chinese lady who was born in 1976, and who showed up at the hospital because of blood in her urine in 2007, and who discovered she had 26 sewing needles in her body, piercing vital organs such as lungs, liver, kidneys and brain. Her story is related to the discriminations towards female newborn children in rural China, where a son is more welcome than a daughter because he can carry on the family name, perform funeral rituals for ancestors, and so on. In Luo’s case, it was most likely her grandparents who attempted the infanticide when she was but months old (even if this theory cannot be proven, as her grandparents already passed away).

In more recent cases, recorded in Tunisia, China and Brazil, it was discovered that the children had respectively three, twelve and even fifty needles stuck in their bodies.

The cases of people surviving for decades with a needle in their brain are obviously an exception – as one of the studies put it, this is the “tip of the iceberg”.
A needle wound can be almost invisible. What is really disquieting is the thought of all those infanticides who are carried out “successfully”, without being discovered.

Sometimes the smallest objects can turn out to be the most useful. And the most lethal.

My gratitude goes to Mariano Tomatis, who recommended La donna dagli aghi, which he discovered during his studies on 19th-century magnetism, and which started this research.

The Carney Landis Experiment

Suppose you’re making your way through a jungle, and in pulling aside a bush you find yourself before a huge snake, ready to attack you. All of a sudden adrenaline rushes through your body, your eyes open wide, and you instantly begin to sweat as your heartbeat skyrockets: in a word, you feel afraid.
But is your fear triggering all these physical reactions, or is it the other way around?
To make a less disquieting example, let’s say you fall in love at first sight with someone. Are the endorphines to be accounted for your excitation, or is your excitation causing their discharge through your body?
What comes first, physiological change or emotion? Which is the cause and which is the effect?

This dilemma was a main concern in the first studies on emotion (and it still is, in the field of affective neurosciences). Among the first and most influential hypothesis was the James-Lange theory, which maintained the primacy of physiological changes over feelings: the brain detects a modification in the stimuli coming from the nervous system, and it “interprets” them by giving birth to an emotion.

One of the problems with this theory was the impossibility of obtaining clear evidence. The skeptics argued that if every emotion arises mechanically within the body, then there should be a gland or an organ which, when conveniently stimulated, will invariably trigger the same emotion in every person. Today we know a little bit more of how emotions work, in regard to the amygdala and the different areas of cerebral cortex, but at the beginning of the Twentieth Century the objection against the James-Lange theory was basically this — “come on, find me the muscle of sadness!

In 1924, Carney Landis, a Minnesota University graduate student, set out to understand experimentally whether these physiological changes are the same for everybody. He focused on those modifications that are the most evident and easy to study: the movement of facial muscles when emotion arises. His study was meant to find repetitive patterns in facial expressions.

To understand if all subjects reacted in the same way to emotions, Landis recruited a good number of his fellow graduate students, and began by painting their faces with standard marks, in order to highlight their grimaces and the related movement of facial muscles.
The experiment consisted in subjecting them to different stimuli, while taking pictures of their faces.

At first volunteers were asked to complete some rather harmless tasks: they had to listen to jazz music, smell ammonia, read a passage from the Bible, tell a lie. But the results were quite discouraging, so Landis decided it was time to raise the stakes.

He began to show his subjects pornographic images. Then some medical photos of people with horrendous skin conditions. Then he tried firing a gunshot to capture on film the exact moment of their fright. Still, Landis was having a hard time getting the expressions he wanted, and in all probability he began to feel frustrated. And here his experiment took a dark turn.

He invited his subjects to stick their hand in a bucket, without looking. The bucket was full of live frogs. Click, went his camera.
Landis encouraged them to search around the bottom of the mysterious bucket. Overcoming their revulsion, the unfortunate volunteers had to rummage through the slimy frogs until they found the real surprise: electrical wires, ready to deliver a good shock. Click. Click.
But the worst was yet to come.

The experiment reached its climax when Landis put a live mouse in the subject’s left hand, and a knife in the other. He flatly ordered to decapitate the mouse.
Most of his incredulous and stunned subjects asked Landis if he was joking. He wasn’t, they actually had to cut off the little animal’s head, or he himself would do it in front of their eyes.
At this point, as Landis had hoped, the reactions really became obvious — but unfortunately they also turned out to be more complex than he expected. Confronted with this high-stress situation, some persons started crying, others hysterically laughed; some completely froze, others burst out into swearing.

Two thirds of the paricipants ended up complying with the researcher’s order, and carried out the macabre execution. In any case, the remaining third had to witness the beheading, performed by Landis himself.
As we said, the subjects were mainly other students, but one notable exception was a 13 years-old boy who happened to be at the department as a patient, on the account of psychological issues and high blood pressure. His reaction was documented by Landis’ ruthless snapshots.

Perhaps the most embarassing aspect of the whole story was that the final results for this cruel test — which no ethical board would today authorize — were not even particularly noteworthy.
Landis, in his Studies of Emotional Reactions, II., General Behavior and Facial Expression (published on the Journal of Comparative Psychology, 4 [5], 447-509) came to these conclusions:

1) there is no typical facial expression accompanying any emotion aroused in the experiment;
2) emotions are not characterized by a typical expression or recurring pattern of muscular behavior;
3) smiling was the most common reaction, even during unpleasant experiences;
4) asymmetrical bodily reactions almost never occurred;
5) men were more expressive than women.

Hardly anything that could justify a mouse massacre, and the trauma inflicted upon the paritcipants.

After obtaining his degree, Carney Landis devoted himself to sexual psychopatology. He went on to have a brillant carreer at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. And he never harmed a rodent again, despite the fact that he is now mostly remembered for this ill-considered juvenile experiment rather than for his subsequent fourty years of honorable research.

There is, however, one last detail worth mentioning.
Alex Boese in his Elephants On Acid, underlines how the most interesting figure of all this bizarre experiment went unnoticed: the fact that two thirds of the subjects, although protesting and suffering, obeyed the terrible order.
And this percentage is in fact similar to the one recorded during the infamous Milgram experiment, in which a scientist commanded the subjects to inflict an electric shock to a third individual (in reality, an actor who pretended to receive the painful discharge). In that case as well, despite the ethical conflict, the simple fact that the order came from an authority figure was enough to push the subjects into carrying out an action they perceived as aberrant.

The Milgram experiment took place in 1961, almost forty years after the Landis experiment. “It is often this way with experiments — says Boese — A scientis sets out to prove one thing, but stumbles upon something completely different, something far more intriguing. For this reason, good researchers know they should always pay close attention to strange events that occur during their experiments. A great discovery might be lurking right beneath their eyes – or beneath te blade of their knife.

On facial expressions related to emotions, see also my former post on Guillaume Duchenne (sorry, Italian language only).

Stoned spiders

1948, University of Tubingen, Germany.
Zoologist H. M. Peters was frustrated. He was conducting a photographic research on the way orb-weaver spiders build their web, but he had encountered a problem: the arachnids he was studying insisted on performing this task of astounding engineering only during the night hours, very early in the morning. This schedule, besides forcing him to get up at an ungodly hour, made photographic documentation quite hard, as the spiders preferred to move in total darkness.
One day Peters decided to call on a collegue, young pharmacologist Dr. Peter N. Witt, for assistance. Would it be possible to somehow drug the spiders, so they would change this routine and start weaving their webs when the sun was already up?

Witt had never had any experience with spiders, but he soon realized that administering tranquilizers or stimulants to the arachnids was easier than he thought: the little critters, constantly thirsty for water, quickly learned to drink from his syringe.
The results of this experiment, alas, turned out to be pretty worthless to zoologist Peters. The spiders kept on building their webs during the night, but that was not the worst part of it. After swallowing the medicine, they weren’t even able to weave a decent web: as if they were drunk, the arachnids produced a twisted mesh, unworthy of being photographed.
After this experience, a disheartened Peters abandoned his project.
In Dr. Witt’s mind, instead, something had clicked.

Common spiders (Araneidae) are all but “common” when it comes to weaving. They build a new web every morning, and if byt he end of the day no insect is trapped, they simply eat it. This way, they are able to recycle silk proteins for weeks: during the first 16 days without food, the webs look perfect. Whe nthe spider gets really hungry, it begins sparing the energy by building a wider-meshes web, suitable to catch only larger insects (the spider is in need of a substantial meal).
After all, for a spider the web isn’t just a way to gather food, but an essential instrument to relate with the surrounding world. Most of these arachnids are almost totally blind, and they use the vibrations of the strands like a radar: from the perceived movements they can understand what kind of insect just snagged itself on the web, and if it is safe for them to approach it; they can notice if even a single thread has broken, and they confidently head in the right direction to repair it; they furthermore use the web as a means of communication in mating rituals, where the male spider remains on the outer edges and rythmically pinches the strings to inform the female of its presence, in order to seduce her without being mistaken for a juicy snack.


During his experimentation with chemicals, Dr. Witt noticed that there seemed to be a significative correspondence between the administered substance and the aberrations that the spiderweb showed. He therefore began feeding the spiders different psychoactive drugs, and registering the variations in their weaving patterns.
Dr. Witt’s study, published in 1951 and revised in 1971, was limited to statistical observation, without attempting to provide further interpretations. Yet the results could lead to a fascinating if not very orthodox reading: it looked like the spiders were affected in much the same way humans react to drugs.


Under the influence of weed, they started regularly building their web, but were soon losing interest once they got to the outer rings; while on peyote or magic mushrooms, the arachnids movements became slower and heavier; after being microdosed with LSD, the web’s design became geometrically perfect (not unlike the kaleidoscopic visions reported by human users), while more massive doses completely inhibited the spiders’ abilities; lastly, caffeine produced out of control, schizoid results.

Spiderweb after high doses of LSD-25.

Clearly this “humanized” interpretation is not scientific to say the least. In fact, what really interested Witt was the possibility of using spiders to ascertain the presence of drugs in human blood or urine, as they had proved sensitive to minimal concentrations, which could not be instrumentally detected at the time. His research continued for decades, and Witt went from being a pharmacologist to being an entomology authority. He was able to recognize his little spliders one by one just by looking at their webs, and his fascination for these invertebrates never faded.
He kept on testing their skills in several other experiments, by altering their nervous system through laser stimulation, administering huge quantities of barbiturics, and even sending them in orbit. Even in the absence of gravity, in what Witt called “a masterpiece in adaptation”, after just three days in space the spiders were able to build a nearly perfect web.

Near the end of the Seventies, Witt discontinued his research. In 1984 J. A. Nathanson re-examined Witt’s data, but only in relation to the effects of caffeine.
In 1995 Witt saw his study come back to life when NASA successfully repeated it, with the help of statistic analysis software: the research showed that spiders could be used to test the toxicity of various chemicals instead of mice, a procedure that could save time and money.

Anyway, there is not much to worry regarding the fate of these invertebrates.
Spiders are among the very few animals who survived the biggest mass extinction that ever took place, and they are able to resist to atmospheric conditions which would be intolerable to the majority of insects. Real rulers of the world since millions of years, they will still be here a long time — even after our species has run its course.

Auto trapanazione

Fino a dove sareste disposti ad arrivare, pur di “ampliare la vostra coscienza”? Potreste scegliere la strada più lunga, la meditazione, lo yoga, lo zazen e via dicendo. Oppure potreste decidere di prendere la “scorciatoia” delle sostanze psicoattive, e cercare di “liberare la mente” attraverso lo yage o i funghetti mescalinici, o l’acido lisergico. Ma arrivereste mai al punto di prendere il vostro fido trapano Black&Decker a percussione, puntarvelo alla fronte e praticare un bel foro nel cranio, dal quale si possa vedere la dura mater che ricopre il cervello?

La trapanazione è stata praticata fin dal Neolitico. Era una pratica relativamente comune, con la quale si cercava di far “uscire” gli spiriti maligni dalla testa del malato. Secondo alcune interpretazioni dei dipinti rupestri, pare che i nostri antenati fossero convinti che praticare un foro nel cranio potesse curare da emicranie, epilessia o disordini mentali. L’intervento, popolare nelle aree germaniche durante il Medio Evo, sembra inoltre aver avuto un’alta percentuale di sopravvivenza – a giudicare dai bordi soffici dei fori sui teschi ritrovati, le ferite stavano cominciando a guarire:  sette persone su otto si riprendevano dall’operazione.

Flashforward al 1964. I tre protagonisti di questa storia si chiamano Bart, Amanda e Joseph.

Bart Huges, un giovane olandese che non aveva mai potuto finire gli studi di medicina per via del suo uso di stupefacenti, pubblica un incartamento underground intitolato Il meccanismo del Volume del Sangue al Cervello, conosciuto anche come Homo Sapiens Correctus. In questo piccolo, psichedelico saggio Huges parla di come il cervello del bambino sia così ricettivo perché le ossa del cranio sono elastiche e la fontanella alla cima della testa permette al cervello di “respirare”, ossia di sostenere la pressione del sangue proveniente dal cuore con una sua propria “pulsazione”. Crescendo, però, la fontanella si salda e le ossa si solidificano. Il nostro cervello rimane così rinchiuso in una vera e propria prigione. Praticando un foro nel cranio, si allenta la pressione del cervello e lo si libera, dandogli uno sfogo per “respirare” e rendendo possibile una sorta di sballo permanente, oltre che un ampliamento della coscienza senza precedenti. Bart Huges praticò su se stesso la trapanazione, l’anno successivo, nel 1965. L’operazione durò 45 minuti, ma per togliere il sangue dai muri occorsero 4 ore.

Con le sue bende che coprivano l’impressionante foro, praticato all’altezza del terzo occhio, Bart Huges divenne il guru della trapanazione, auspicando che tutti gli ospedali la praticassero gratuitamente, e arrivando a opinare che in un futuro non troppo lontano il buco in testa venisse praticato a tutti, a una certa età, per creare un’umanità evoluta e sensitiva.

Ora, penserete, in un mondo normale nessuno darebbe credito a un guru di questo tipo, e soprattutto alle sue fantasticherie pseudoscientifiche. Ma questo non è un mondo normale, e men che meno lo era quello dei favolosi Sixties, in cui la liberazione della mente era uno degli scopi principali dell’esistenza, assieme al libero amore e alla musica rock. Huges cominciò con il farsi un adepto, Joseph Mellen, un hippie piuttosto fatto che però ebbe il merito di fargli conoscere Amanda Feilding. Fra i due scoccò subito la scintilla della passione. Bart e Amanda convinsero il povero Joseph a trapanarsi – ma se Bart aveva usato un trapano elettrico, Joseph avrebbe dovuto usare un trapano a mano, “per convincere le autorità che anche le popolazioni del terzo mondo avrebbero potuto godere della tecnica”. Joseph, che aveva forse poca personalità ma di certo molta buona volontà, provò a bucarsi la testa con quel trapano, senza riuscirvi, forse anche a causa della quantità impressionante di LSD che si era calato per “calmare i nervi”.

Mellen ci riprovò per altre quattro volte, nell’arco dei quattro anni successivi, talvolta assistito da Amanda (che aveva nel frattempo lasciato Bart, e si era sposata con lui). Una volta, ancora strafatto di LSD, si era trapanato fino a svenire ed essere ricoverato d’urgenza. Un’altra volta aveva sentito “un sacco di bolle corrermi dentro la testa”, ma visto che l’estasi prevista non arrivava, aveva concluso che  il buco praticato doveva per forza essere troppo piccolo. Un’altra volta si ruppe il trapano, Joseph dovette interrompere l’operazione a metà, andare a chiedere a un vicino di riparargli l’utensile, e poi riprendere il “lavoro”. Infine, dopo tanti tentativi tragicomici, Mellen riuscì ad ottenere il suo bel buco, e il più grande e potente sballo della sua vita (a suo dire). Amanda, imparando dagli errori del marito, decise tre mesi dopo di tentare anche lei.

Filmata da Joseph, la sua fu un’operazione sopraffina, e divenne ben presto un filmato d’arte underground che ancora oggi pochi hanno avuto la fortuna (?) di vedere: Heartbeat In The Brain (1970). Il filmato, esplicito e duro, ebbe una certa eco negli ambienti artistici nei quali la Feilding era conosciuta.

Amanda Feilding è sempre stata più ambigua sul risultato della sua auto trapanazione; ha continuato a sostenerne gli effetti benefici con strenua convinzione, ma ha anche spesso sottolineato la “soggettività” delle sue posizioni. (A onor del vero, bisogna sottolineare che nessuno di questi ferventi fautori della trapanazione ha mai sostenuto l’auto trapanazione: vi sono arrivati dopo che nessun chirurgo si era prestato a soddisfare le loro richieste).

Dopo vent’otto anni assieme e due figli, Mellen e Fielding si separarono. Risposati, ognuno di loro convinse il rispettivo nuovo coniuge a farsi trapanare. In tutto, le persone trapanate al mondo dovrebbero essere circa una ventina. Fino a qualche anno fa era attiva anche una Church Of Trepanation, con sede in Messico, che proponeva per un modico prezzo una trapanazione operata da un chirurgo messicano compiacente. Oggi si è trasformata in un più sobrio Gruppo per la Trapanazione, con un sito ad appoggio delle teorie in favore di questa pratica.

Per saperne di più:

Trapanazione su Wikipedia (inglese) – Intervista-racconto ad Amanda Feilding – il documentario A Hole in The Head