Olga Lepeshinskaya was the most dangerous woman in pseudoscience

What happens if you're a terrible scientist perpetrating laughably obvious frauds? Well, that depends on whether or not you're friends with Stalin. If you are, you can be as successful as Olga Lepeshinskaya.

Olga Lepeshinskaya was proof positive that no amount of scientific incompetence can overcome immaculate politics. Born in 1871, she leaned politically left from birth and joined up with communist groups in the 1800s. She was close personal friends with Lenin, and became a favorite of Stalin. With those kind of friends in her corner, her methods didn't have to be good... and they weren't.

Lepeshinskaya began announcing startling discoveries. She claimed that dried organic matter from one plant could be revitalized, at which point it would grow into a different species of plant. This happened because, Lepeshinskaya claimed, because there was a "vital substance," a spark of life, that could be guided into becoming all life forms. Later she said she found that this vital substance could be introduced into inorganic matter with the application of the right nucleic acids. She also said that she could return dead cells, or aging cells, to life and youth. To demonstrate this she showed film footage of cell death played backwards.

Olga Lepeshinskaya was the most dangerous woman in pseudoscience

What's interesting about both Lepeshinskaya and the climate in which she thrived is that no reputable scientists believed her and she didn't seem to begrudge them for it. Sometimes she didn't even notice she was being mocked. At one point, when she claimed that soda water could revitalize aging cells, with an entire auditorium of scientists twitching in second-hand embarrassment, one scientist asked her laughingly if mineral water would do just as well. She earnestly told him that it would not. The results that she'd been getting, running a spa for high-ranking party officials and national celebrities, could only be achieved with soda water.

It was those high-ranking officials that kept people quiet, not necessarily Lepeshinskaya herself. Even her critics say she was not malicious. Her ideas were so in-keeping with party ideology (the spontaneous generation of qualities rather than genetically inherited traits) and her false breakthroughs were so prestigious that they formed a kind of political biology that no one would admit was faulty. People who criticized her ideas or called her methods into question were quietly kept from advancement. Symposia were organized around those who would speak well of her ideas. Of course, Lepeshinskaya herself had to have had some hand in the selective advancement of scientists. In the end, only her family were allowed to work with her lab. Her 12-year-old granddaughter was considered a qualified lab worker.

As politics slowly changed, Lepeshinskaya's ideas faded away. She became less and less celebrated, and less relevant, although she kept up work at her lab into her 80s. During her lifetime, only one person dared speak publicly about her outrageously bad work. Whenever she spoke, her husband would publicly tell people, "Don't you listen to her. She's totally ignorant about science and everything she's been saying is a lot of rubbish."

[Via The Doctor's Plot of 1953, Origin of Plant Cells from Cell-Free Organic Matter]