Was Cleopatra the First 'Mad Scientist'?

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Cleopatra is cemented in history as the last great Egyptian queen – her exploits and life the repeated focus of art and media. While her military pursuits, affair with Julius Caesar, and fling with Mark Antony garner most of the acclaim, lesser known are her unethical dabblings into science.

This is what captured the attention of science writer Sam Kean in his latest book, The Icepick Surgeon: Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science.

Kean cited the Greek historian Plutarch, who reported that Cleopatra was fond of experimenting with poisons, frequently using prisoners as unwilling subjects. Her interests also expanded to animal venoms. She particularly enjoyed pitting different venomous animals against each other, curious to see which would win.

"This knowledge came in handy when Cleopatra ended her own life by letting an asp bite her breast, which she'd observed to be a relatively painless death," Kean wrote.

By far the worst of Cleopatra's mad forays into science came after she grew fixated with the question of when you can first tell whether babies are male or female in the womb. As Kean recounted:

"Whenever one of her maidservants was sentenced to death (an apparently common occurrence), the queen ran her through the same procedure. First, in case [the maid] was already pregnant, she forced the maid to swallow one of the noxious substances she knew about, a "destructive serum" that purged the womb. With the slate now clean, Cleopatra had a manservant forcibly impregnate the maid. Finally, at some predetermined time later, she had the maid's belly torn open, and the fetus inside fished out. Accounts differ on the results, but Cleopatra could reportedly distinguish males from females by day 41 after conception."

Whether Cleopatra actually went to these heinous lengths is doubtful, as is her apparent ability to differentiate male and female fetuses so early in development. But the account caught Kean's attention because it succinctly showcased the thought process of the archetypical 'mad scientist' - who somehow can do science right but at the same time be completely and utterly wrong.

"Cleopatra experimented only on maidservants sentenced to death. If they were going to die anyway, she apparently reasoned, why not have them serve some useful purpose in the meantime? This decided, she made them take an abortifacient, to ensure that any prior pregnancies didn't confound her results. She then recored the exact date of the rape-insemination, to nail down her answer to the day," Kean described.

Perhaps that's why mad scientists are so disturbing. Their logic and methods – like Cleopatra's – aren't always outwardly insane. It's why scientists must always remain morally vigilant to ensure that what's right doesn't get sacrificed in the pursuit of curiosity.

"What makes mad scientists mad isn't their lack of logic or reason or scientific acumen," Kean wrote. "It's that they do science too well, to the exclusion of their humanity."

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