Meet the emperor of the electrodes

Image from the Vieux Carre Courier

Image from the Vieux Carre Courier

I've been working for a while on a long read for Mosaic, the Wellcome Trust's weekly online magazine, about a guy called Robert Galbraith Heath. It's an extraordinary story that has gripped me ever since I first heard of it.

The story starts with a scientific paper in 1972, which describes (in astonishing and unsettling detail) how Heath, a scientist in New Orleans, attempted to cure a gay man by implanting electrodes into his skull and stimulating the pleasure centre of his brain. He and his team were so pleased with the results that they got approval to bring a prostitute into the laboratory - monitoring the patient's brain patterns as the two of them made love.

This was strange enough. But when I started looking into Heath, I realised that this was merely the tip of an iceberg of weirdness - that over the decades, he had done some of the boldest, strangest and least ethically justified experiments you can imagine, on both humans and (as the picture above shows) animals. Stranger still, his work appeared to be largely forgotten.

The piece is online here - I hope you find the story as fascinating, alarming and in places downright disturbing as I did while researching it. It's released under Creative Commons, which means that anyone is free to republish it as long as they link/credit back to Mosaic...