• The Icepick Surgeon

  • Murder, Fraud, Sabotage, Piracy, and Other Dastardly Deeds Perpetrated in the Name of Science
  • By: Sam Kean
  • Narrated by: Ben Sullivan
  • Length: 11 hrs and 45 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook
  • Categories: Biographies & Memoirs, True Crime
  • 4.4 out of 5 stars (410 ratings)
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Publisher's Summary

From New York Times best-selling author Sam Kean comes the gripping, untold history of science's darkest secrets, “a fascinating book [that] deserves a wide audience” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

Science is a force for good in the world - at least usually. But sometimes, when obsession gets the better of scientists, they twist a noble pursuit into something sinister. Under this spell, knowledge isn’t everything, it’s the only thing - no matter the cost. Best-selling author Sam Kean tells the true story of what happens when unfettered ambition pushes otherwise rational men and women to cross the line in the name of science, trampling ethical boundaries and often committing crimes in the process.

The Icepick Surgeon masterfully guides the listener across 2,000 years of history, beginning with Cleopatra’s dark deeds in ancient Egypt. The book reveals the origins of much of modern science in the transatlantic slave trade of the 1700s, as well as Thomas Edison’s mercenary support of the electric chair and the warped logic of the spies who infiltrated the Manhattan Project. But the sins of science aren’t all safely buried in the past. Many of them, Kean reminds us, still affect us today. We can draw direct lines from the medical abuses of Tuskegee and Nazi Germany to current vaccine hesitancy, and connect icepick lobotomies from the 1950s to the contemporary failings of mental-health care. Kean even takes us into the future, when advanced computers and genetic engineering could unleash whole new ways to do one another wrong.

Unflinching, and exhilarating to the last word, The Icepick Surgeon fuses the drama of scientific discovery with the illicit thrill of a true-crime tale. With his trademark wit and precision, Kean shows that, while science has done more good than harm in the world, rogue scientists do exist, and when we sacrifice morals for progress, we often end up with neither. 

PLEASE NOTE: When you purchase this title, the accompanying PDF will be available in your Audible Library along with the audio.

©2021 Sam Kean (P)2021 Little, Brown & Company

Critic Reviews

"Kean is a gifted raconteur...[in The Icepick Surgeon] you’ll find a series of gripping stories about evil scientific deeds, corrupt rivalries and skulduggery - with real skulls." (John Schwartz, New York Times Book Review

"Delightful, highly readable.... Kean takes his readers on an engrossing - and sometimes horrifying - historical tour of the many ways the search for knowledge can go wrong.... Written with the flair of a beach thriller and the thoughtfulness of philosophy, the pages explode with a wealth of information and juicy details, all held together with virtuoso storytelling.” (Lucinda Robb, Washington Post)

"The Icepick Surgeon has its gems of phraseology.... We cringe at the ghastly work of grave robbers and surgeons in blood-stiff aprons, and laugh at the comical fights among paleontologists bent on destroying one another’s careers.... As each chapter compounds, it becomes more difficult to condemn and smirk without seeing the systemic ways that early sins have crept into the heart of science and medicine today.... It takes honesty and integrity to make good science; we ignore this at our peril.” (Brandy Schillace, Wall Street Journal

What listeners say about The Icepick Surgeon

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    4 out of 5 stars
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FANTASTIC! & What’s up with all these naysayers (negative reviewers)?!

This book is just great. Well written, performed well, enjoyable to listen to, and well researched. For the most part, Kean seems to try and stay as neutral as possible on most subjects, a difficult skill, yet an essential one when writing historical medical history. Only with regard to one story so far (I’m at Chapter 8) does he seem to fall short of the mark when, for some reason, he specifically provides extensive personal details of the main nurse involved in the Tuskegee “study”. I’m sure these details are publicly available, somewhere; but was it really necessary to call out this one nurse by giving out her married name and other specifics in an internationally available book? To spotlight her (she has passed but now her family will now be known forever, when at least before they had some kind of anonymity from time and separation from her married name not being common knowledge. She did not create that study, although she was an intimate part of it. But why visit upon her living family the debt that she alone incurred from her dubious participation in the horrendous affair that was Tuskegee?) and not any of the other (aside from the creator and a few key players in DC) white or African American Drs/nurses/collaborators that were involved in the continuation of Tuskegee seems unfair and unjustified in the extreme. Why such a vilifying, withering focus on Nurse Rivers? Was it because she was Black? No, because he did not focus at all on the African American DRS that voted to continue the study, knowing full well what was happening and having much more power to halt it than a Black nurse would have then. This was a definite moral fail, and doesn’t make sense when compared to his other exemplary work. So four stars, Sam Kean. Boo.

Gripe no. 2: I do NOT understand all these negative reviews that complain about Kean plugging his website and podcast. I am in chapter 8, and I can count on one hand how many times he has mentioned them. So…these people are butt-hurt that the author is giving his readers FREE, well-researched, FURTHER content going into greater detail on the subjects that they are interested in (or presumably they would not have purchased this book)? Oh, you’re right-how DARE he! I am OFFENDED! How ridiculous is that? He doesn’t, but if Sam Kean wanted to toot his horn about his podcast and website? Well, OK then, go ahead, Sam Kean; because he is a great writer who does good work, and he deserves credit for that work, so there. But he doesn’t. Not once, at least so far-he just references it, as in, “if you want more of this story, go to my blah-d-blah for it”. Thanks, Sam Kean. I think I will.

Job (mostly) well done.

57 people found this helpful

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Too much self promotion

Very slow. Repeated the same phrases constantly. The final proverbial, “nail in the coffin,” was the constant self promotion of the author’s podcast. Do not recommend.

22 people found this helpful

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Another Deep Dive Into Science

You may know these stories- But do you really ?
As an avid reader and listener of science writing I was familiar with most of these stories- I use the word familiar because I was then floored by the detail that this book provided. The chapter named for the book's title is worth the listen alone.
Cheers

17 people found this helpful

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Nah

Written and narrated with about as much joy a Buzzfeed listicle. As soon as the author started plugging his podcast I was out.

15 people found this helpful

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Sickeningly Addictive Listen

An ironically enjoyable history lesson that provokes a lot deep thoughts and insights. Thank goodness most of the stories were so long ago because it would be tough to stomach the chapters if they were recent. That being said, a few of the chapters were about recent events that were appalling…but that only made the point that ethics are as important today as they were long ago. We are not necessarily “more evolved” ethically as we’d like to think. Well written, very descriptive, perfectly paced. The narration was great. Nice voice with well timed inflections and cadence. Would listen another book by Sam Kean or one narrated by Ben Sullivan if one should ever come my way.

13 people found this helpful

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Best so far

Sam Kean always tells good stories about science history and he does not disappoint here. He takes some very difficult topics and clearly and honestly tells the stories. Without flinching from calling out the wrongs that were perpetrated, or trying to excuse the actors involved, Kean is also able to guide the reader/listener towards a deeper understanding of the ethics, choices, justifications and motivations involved in being a human being doing science. He challenges his audience to engage in thinking more deeply about just how complex we are as individuals and as a species.

12 people found this helpful

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highly recommend

very intriguing book but the nods to his other works and podcast took me out of the book a little and seemed like too in your face advertising that I wouldn't have gotten by physically reading which was the only downside in my opinion. loved the book though!

11 people found this helpful

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Exceptionally read and written

Time flew by way too quickly with this. Insightful and exhilarating without the usual cliches.

8 people found this helpful

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Written for the science geek

Another “home run” of a book for Sam Kean. Keep ‘me coming. You write, we read.

5 people found this helpful

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Entertaining and Gross

Sam Kean is always entertaining and informative, even when the stories he's telling makes me cringe.

4 people found this helpful

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  • Hannah Harris
  • 10-08-21

THE BEST AUDIO BOOK IVE EVER LISTENED TO!

Honestly, I'm kicking myself for being a speedy listener because I didn't want this book to end. Truly eye opening stories, things I'd never heard of and thought provoking! My love for science and horror/gore was merged and written exceptionally well! I have highly recommended this book to anyone who will listen! I'm hoping for more content like this!!

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  • Anonymous User
  • 08-04-21

Fascinating and exciting!

The narrator was fantastic. the book itself lives up to Kean's reputation and previous books as well and the diversity of the stories and angles of view on each story is really engaging and insightful. This makes me want to be a science historian!