Dr. Robert Bartholow’s Neurological Experimentation

Bioethics became a fascinating, but somewhat difficult, topic to research in this course. Some digging was required to find JSTOR articles related to the topic I chose for my third blog post, so I will be including multiple links to JSTOR articles that I pieced my information from.


In the 19th century, little was known about the quadrants of the human brain or what each area controlled. In fact, it was unknown that specific areas of the brain controlled certain actions, rather than the entire brain functioning as one unit. Because brains were examined once the person was deceased, 19th century neurologists knew little of the living organ.

Dr. Robert Bartholow, enamored with neurological research on animal brains, is most famously known for his experiment on a live, conscious woman’s brain. In 1874, Dr. Bartholow encountered a patient with a large cancerous ulcer or tumor. The patient’s name was Mary Rafferty. Mary’s tumor had grown so large, that it had eaten a fairly large hole in her skull.

This would have been a particularly exciting thing for Dr. Bartholow; to see the inside of a woman’s head. During this time, scientists did not understand exactly how electrical currents existed within the human body, and that this is what powered the nervous system.

Then, Dr. Bartholow proceeded to electrify a large needle and insert it into Mary’s brain. Mary experienced pain in her neck. Dr. Bartholow increased the electrical current and moved the needle. This experiment continued for some time, with Mary experiencing pain, crying, involuntarily moving her limbs, and frothing at the mouth.

Mary had a five minute seizure during the experiment, which sent her into a 20 minute coma. She woke, feeling sick, and died the next day after a grand mal seizure.

When the needle entered the brain substance, she complained of acute pain in the neck. In order to develop more decided reactions, the strength of the current was increased … her countenance exhibited great distress, and she began to cry.

-Dr. Bartholow’s medical report

Dr. Bartholow submitted his medical report to The British Medical Journal, excited to share his findings. His practice was seen as unethical, and received many criticisms. However, Dr. Bartholow was allowed to explain and refute accusations through the journal and he never faced any major backlash for his experiment on Mary Rafferty. Dr. Bartholow maintained that Mary gave her consent to the procedure and that her cause of death was not related to the experiment.

This is one of the clearest examples of justifying torture in the name of science in the United States. During this time, doctors were able to use women, children, and the sick as test subjects without facing punishment. People suffered, and many died, to develop some of the procedures, vaccinations, and anesthetics that are still used today.

Experiments On The Functions Of The Human Brain
Roberts Bartholow
The British Medical Journal , Vol. 1, No. 700 (May 30, 1874), p. 727
Dr. Bartholow’s Experiments
The British Medical Journal , Vol. 1, No. 700 (May 30, 1874), p. 723

8 thoughts on “Dr. Robert Bartholow’s Neurological Experimentation

  1. This article is likely the most interesting one that I have read so far in this class with the blogs. I have heard of the horrific scientific experiments that Hitler had his doctors perform during WWII, but I was unaware of the same practices going on in 19th century America. I understand that the female that the doctor experimented on was likely going to die from her tumor, but to subject her to pain and distress as you mentioned she felt is something I feel is unethical and morally wrong. The patient may have consented to the experiment, but with the actions she exhibited, it definitely borders torture. I can understand how the doctor’s peers felt when he released his findings.

    • I think that this article relates to my previous article about a doctor who performed surgical experiments on slave women. My feeling is that *maybe* consent was given, but probably without all of the information necessary to make an informed decision. We should also consider that these women, especially Mary Rafferty, likely felt that they had no choice but to let a doctor do anything they wanted to try to save their lives or make life easier. If there is a hole in your head, you just might consent to anything. What bothers me about this case is that the doctor made it very clear that he did not know what he was doing, and was continuing to test theories on this woman when he was clearly harming her.

  2. Another 19th century doctor to consider is Sigmund Freud. While I cannot find any evidence linking Freud to human torture, his methods and theories were not all that safe. For example, in his own life, Freud was a heavy smoker of cigars (graduated from cigarettes). Despite several warnings from his colleges, he remained a smoker and in 1897 suggested that addictions, including tobacco use, were substitutes for masterbation, “the one great habit”. WHAT??

    In 1884, one of Freud’s early experiments did little to help his professional reputation. Freud published a paper detailing his experimentation with cocaine as a remedy for mental and physical ailments. He sang the praises of the drug, which he administered to himself as a cure for headaches and anxiety. Freud shelved the study after numerous cases of addiction were reported by those using the drug medicinally.

    • Your response made me chuckle. I agree that Freud was very … out there. Kind of makes you wonder about how he came to be so respected in psychology. Interestingly enough, cocaine was very commonly used for many purposes. I know it won’t show in your feed of blog posts, but if you visit my physical blog you’ll see that my layout picture is of cocaine tablets. These were used to treat tooth aches. I believe that you would place them in your gums and let it melt. Also, we all know about Coca-Cola containing cocaine. My husband is in the medical field and he usually tries to explain away some of these insanities, but we both agree that the history of medicine has been gruesome and somewhat shameful.

    • I wish I could remember the details, but it’s been a long time since I read about it. But one thing I remember from a grad course I took years ago was that Freud did some type of experiment or study that I thought of as bordering on sexual abuse of the subject. Do any of you psychology majors know what I’m referring to?

      • Dr. Tomek,

        I graduated with a Bachelor in Psychology and, of course, I know what you’re referring to.

        I could talk about Freud for days and much more about Carl G. Jung. These two are nemesis in the field but both of their works are remarkable. Especially Jung’s interpretation of the human dreams and what they mean/stood for.

      • Freud’s daughter submitted a letter that is sealed in the archives until 2020. Some speculate that her letter will reveal some sort of sexual experimentation, or other secrets of that nature, about her father.

  3. These kind of experiments went on for decades, especially during WWI and WWII. US Military/Government were also involved in this kind of experiment. Soldiers volunteered to such experiment in order to enhanced their abilities. Doctors would open their skull and inject chemicals. There were few documentaries about these experiments on Natural Geographic Channel and History Channel.

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