Robert Bartholow and the Rafferty Experiment

Robert Bartholow

Robert Bartholow

The history of science is littered with bizarre experiments. From the macabre demonstrations of the ‘real-life’ Frankensteins in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to the man who attempted to weigh the human soul, the pursuit of knowledge has taken people down very strange pathways.

Now and then, though, experimentation moves from the mere weird to unethical and borderline evil behavior that puts a blemish on the entire scientific community. Such a case occurred in 1874, when Dr. Robert Bartholow was presented with a patient named Mary Rafferty. What followed was an experiment worthy of a modern torture-porn movie.


A ghoulish experiment

Dr. Robert Bartholow was born November 28, 1831. He earned his medical degree from the University of Maryland in 1854. A year later he served as a US Army surgeon, a position he held for nine years. In 1864, he became a professor at the Medical College of Ohio in Cincinatti. During that time, he and Mary Rafferty fatefully crossed paths.

Mary was a 30 year old woman with a 2 in diameter hole in her skull caused by a cancerous ulcer, exposing her brain to the open air. Bartholow, whose interest was in electrical medicine, saw this as a unique opportunity. Electrical experiments had been performed on the exposed brains of animals, but never on humans. Dr. Bartholow decided to be the first to make an attempt.

Using a small needle, Bartholow applied small amounts of faradic current to different sections of Rafferty’s brain. Low current produced movements in various body parts, but it did not cause Rafferty any pain. But when Bartholow sunk the needle deeper and applied more current, Rafferty had a seizure and briefly slipped into a coma. She eventually recovered and was able to undergo more experiments, but days later she was struck by another seizure and died.

Dr. Bartholow published the results of his ghoulish experiment in the American Journal of Medical Sciences. The American Medical Association condemned Dr. Bartholow’s actions, forcing the doctor to write an apology letter to the British Medical Journal. Despite the critcism, Dr. Bartholow did not suffer any professional censure. He went on to become Professor Emeritus at Jefferson Medical College in 1893. He did eleven years later in his home. No one has tried to replicate the Rafferty Experiment since.



“Robert Bartholow.” May 8, 2014. Wikipedia. May 5, 2014. <>

“History of Neurosurgery in Cincinnati.” June 2009. The Mayfield Clinic. May 5, 2014. <>

One thought on “Robert Bartholow and the Rafferty Experiment

  1. Gal San Nevo

    great article, though i found one crucial mistake in the ending.
    similar experiments have been preformed by ezio sciamanna as well as alberto alberti

    with thanks, Gal San Nevo

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