I’m Riley, and I’m addicted to true crime. Dateline, Making a Murderer, Serial, Crime Junkie, true crime novels — you name it, I’ve consumed it. And I especially love it when true crime intersects with STEM.
It’s no secret that academia is not immune to scandals, ranging from the professionally shady to the outright felonious. Certain cases of medical, research and university-related misconduct have become just as infamous as O.J. case or the Manson murders, but there are so many others that are right up the alley of true crime fans. Here’s a few scandals you’ve heard about and others you likely have not heard about, with book, film, podcast and article recommendations. Of course, you can do your own digging.
The ones you’ve heard about:
Elizabeth Holmes was a whiz kid who raised $700 million in investor funds for her miniaturized, automated blood tests that promised to revolutionize health care. From the outside, her company Theranos was the most exciting thing in Silicon Valley. From the inside? Well, it was mostly a lot of lying and intimidation to cover up the fact that the product didn’t work. Holmes is set to stand trial this August, but if you can’t wait, check out the book Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup.
A recent scandal but an instant classic, you’re familiar with the Varsity Blues scandal because it featured Aunt Becky and the guy who made your favorite clothes at Target in middle school. This scandal involved wealthy parents paying William Rick Singer to get their kids into top colleges by any means necessary. Check out the Netflix documentary to learn more.
Stanford Prison Experiment
In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo began an experiment to study the psychology of power dynamics by assigning his students to take on the role of either prisoner or guard in a prison simulation. Six days later, the experiment was ended prematurely because the guards had become so abusive to the prisoners. Not only have the ethics of Zimbardo’s experiment been questioned, but so have the findings. Researchers have been unable to replicate the striking power dynamics observed in the Stanford experiment, and participants claim that Zimbardo told the guards to act abusive toward the prisoners. A 2015 film called The Stanford Prison Experiment gives a dramatized version of the events (not that they need to be dramatized any further). As a bonus, it stars Rico from Hannah Montana.
This podcast blew my mind. Dr. Christopher Duntsch was an M.D./Ph.D. with 15 years of experience. He also had a cocaine habit and absolutely no idea how to perform the surgeries his job required. In his two years as a neurosurgeon in Texas, he injured 33 of the 38 patients he saw and avoided punishment until one died on the operating table. This one’s a great look inside the mind of a sociopath as well as the issues with our country’s medical oversight.
The ones you need to hear about:
John Donovan Sr.
John Donovan had an extremely successful career back in 2007. He had two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. from Yale, was a professor at MIT, and wrote business and computer science textbooks. Then he was shot in the stomach in a parking lot outside of his office by two Russian mobsters hired by his son. Or so he said. It turns out Donovan shot himself in order to try to win $180 million of assets he was fighting his kids for in court. To make matters even more bizarre, Donovan is currently awaiting trial for forging the will of his deceased son to get control of his property. Lots to unpack here.
Dr. BethAnn McLaughlin, neuroscientist and founder of the #MeTooSTEM movement is at the center of one of the weirdest, if not exactly criminal, hoaxes I’ve ever heard of. In summer 2020, McLaughlin announced that her friend, the American Indian, bisexual scientist behind the popular Twitter account @Sciencing_Bi, died from COVID. Scientists were outraged that @Sciencing_Bi had been forced to work in person at Arizona State University, which led to her death. Some internet sleuths, however, noticed that McLaughlin was the only person who ever met @Sciencing_Bi in person, and that many of the photos on the account were stock photos. @Sciencing_Bi turned out to be an elaborate hoax orchestrated by McLaughlin to regain her status after complaints by #MeTooSTEM employees.
Getting a grant from the National Institutes of Health is no small feat. Penn State University Professor Craig Grimes’ proposal to develop a method to measure levels of gases in the blood impressed the NIH, which awarded him $1.2 million for the work. There was just one little problem. Instead of doing the proposed work, Grimes spent the money on personal expenses. In total, Grimes swindled grant-funding agencies out of $3 million and never did one experiment. I’m guessing his shenanigans are why it’s so hard to get a reimbursement at universities these days.
Linda Burfield Hazzard
Intermittent fasting would have been child’s play to Linda Burfield Hazzard. In the early 1900s, she ran a facility in Washington state that sought to cure illnesses of all types by starvation. Death was not an uncommon outcome for her patients, but when she forged the will of a wealthy patient to steal her assets, she was finally charged with murder. Hazzard eventually got a taste of her own “medicine,” dying by starvation in 1938.
Whether you’re just easing into the world of true crime or you’ve been immersed in it for years, these stories are sure to entertain, or at least make you feel better about your job performance!
- The Case for Fiction: How Reading Fiction Can Help Researchers
- There is More to Medicine: Lenox Hill on Netflix
- Finding the Medicine in Historical Drama
Want to read more from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine? Subscribe to the Biomedical Odyssey blog and receive new posts directly in your inbox.