Mad science isn't just about cool gadgets or revenge; it's a compulsion. The Mad Scientist really is insane, with an actual psychological disorder that causes both brilliance and madness.
In some series, this leads to a story line in which one or more of the Mad Scientists (or perhaps some saner allies) seek out a cure for their condition. Invariably, however, the cure comes at a cost, usually the loss of their terrible, manic genius, or else their energy and drive across the board. In other series, there may already exist a treatment for it, but someone forgets (or "forgets") to take it one day...
Although obviously more extreme than in real life, this sort of thing is Truth in Television (or other media): Some medications used to treat mental illness leave the patient drained of energy, unable to think clearly, cut off from the full use of the senses, or any combination thereof. This is one factor in some of the many historical geniuses and others who refuse to take their medication, preferring insanity to a lackluster funk.
Named for the communicable form of mad science in the webcomicA Miracle of Science.
Compare With Great Power Comes Great Insanity, which, depending on the series, may be either the cause or the result of SRMD. Likely to lead to a No Medication for Me / Flowers for Algernon Syndrome situation. Can quickly lead to The Madness Place. Not to be confused with Memetic Mutation. Also compare The Spark of Genius, which is sometimes combined with this syndrome.
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Anime and Manga
In Soul Eater Dr. Franken Stein suffers from this, explaining how as a child doctors tried to figure out the reason for his mental instability and desire to dissect everything, traits which also make him the most powerful graduate of Shibusen. He even goes on to explain how insanity is contagious, meaning his condition gets worse when madness begins to consume the world. This might be a slight subversion of the trope, however, as it seems when his madness is less controlled, he goes from analytical genius to stark-raving madman.
Well, in Stein's case, you could say he was crazy and THEN took to science as he grew up. Young Stein is pure Slasher SmileNightmare Fuel, with a side of "Take it apart to see how it works." With 'it' often being a living, breathing thing.
He got pretty good at putting 'it' back together too.
The Whispered in Full Metal Panic are born with some form of Mad Science gene that allows them to build and instinctively understand one particular type of futuristic Black Box technology, such as the creation of Humongous Mecha, futuristic submarine construction, AI, cold-fusion reactors, or similar. Which Black Box technology any given Whispered has knowledge of is random, and when they access their knowledge abilities they slip into some form of catatonic state.
Will Magnus, the creator of the Metal Men in the DC universe, suffers from bipolar disorder. Taking pills prevents him from acting irrational and creating machines of death - like making a robot out of uranium - but also stifles his creativity - like making a sexy robot out of platinum.
In some of his incarnations, the Lizard form of Curt Connors in Spider-Man acts like a mad scientist, even though normally, he is a good guy. Complicating things is that on other occasions, the Lizard form is non-sentient.
Most versions of The Incredible Hulk revolve around Bruce Banner's attempts to resolve his... shall we say, emotional issues?
Hank "Ant-Man" Pym. As he has stated, he only takes on board scientific projects that interest him or stimulate his imagination. He is also somewhat prone to bouts of insanity and creating villainous robots. Exactly what mental illness Hank suffers from has never really been disclosed, but the general consensus is that he really should be on some sort of medication.
One theory is that he's neurotically obsessed with being a super-hero, despite being completely insane.
Mento of Doom Patrol is arrogant and mentally unstable at the best of times. He's also a freaking genius with several doctorates and a business savant who makes Batman look broke. He started heroing both to impress his (then-future) wife and because he was bored. It was after he lost Rita that he really went downhill.
Everett Ducklair from Paperinik New Adventures couldn't help himself with this trope, as near-everything he created turned out to be a weapon of mass destruction.
In the Narbonic/Girl Genius forum-role play known as The Mad Scientist Wars... well, guess. Almost every major member of the main cast is a Mad Scientist, and SRMD is shown to be well documented in the medical field. It's a purely genetic condition, of course. Interestingly, one character was shown to have been taking some kind of medication to repress the syndrome, before a skipped dose and stress caused him to 'Break Through'.
Dr. Herbert West, Re Animator. He performs science because of the need to know, consequences be damned. His search to conquer death may have started with the benign reasoning of conquering humanity's greatest mystery and advancing medical science, but he goes WAY past the point of no return into straight up mad-scientific compulsion.
One character in Transylvania 6-5000 is a normal scientist as long as he's outside his laboratory. On entering it, however, he proceeds to muss up his hair and go into full-blown Mad Scientist mode.
It's implied that the title character of Young Frankenstein inherited his tendency toward mad science from his more famous predecessor.
In the musical, it's stated outright. In fact, it's sung, in "Join The Family Business":
The Roqueforts are celebrated for their Roquefort cheese The Rothschilds are famous for their wines Hersheys have their chocolates, and Liptons have their teas, But when it comes to making monsters you can't beat the Frankensteins!
Oliver Sacks' book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat mentions a jazz drummer who has Tourette's Syndrome. He would take his anti-Tourette meds during the week, and be less prone to compulsions; but stop taking them for the weekend so he could do the wild drum improvisations that made him a desirable musician.
Supervillains often suffer from "Malign Hypercognition Disorder" in Austin Grossman's book Soon I Will Be Invincible. It's stated that the Mad Scientist types will go this way when they are at the far right edge of the bell curve. Doctor Impossible knows his plans will be thwarted, knows he could use his inventions for other purposes, but has a psychological compulsion to try to rule the world. His alternating attempts to hide the painful truth from himself and justified self pity make him The Woobie.
Another former villain with the same condition, Baron Ether, seems to have come to terms with the fact that he has an incurable condition and is burned out on the constant cycle of escape and doomed plans of world conquest: he needs to be kept under house arrest, and would of course escape in a heartbeat given the chance, but he really doesn't want to. He tries to get Dr. Impossible to understand, but it bounces right off his dementia.
In one of Larry Niven's Known Space short stories, appropriately titled "Madness Has its Place," it's revealed that ARM (the technology-suppressing Secret Police branch of the UN) deliberately employs sociopaths and paranoid schizophrenics, though they're issued mandatory medication. The main character is one (he's implied to be a former serial killer), but in order to help prepare a defense against the approaching Kzinti aliens, he goes off his medication. His descent into paranoia and sociopathy make him frighteningly competent at war preparations for a humanity that hasn't known war in centuries. The ARM also creates treatments to artificially induce paranoid schizophrenia and other disorders in its agents, in case enough naturally occurring crazies of the right sort are unavailable.
Although they're rarely developed characters, any Marthter that any Igor has worked for on the Discworld. Either they start out mad, or become mad, as a result of their scientific activities.
The best example is Jeremy in Thief of Time. When he stops taking his medicine (although Igor specifically says "Marther pours out two spoonfuls each day." using an Exact Words ploy), his thoughts come much more quickly, although the nature of Jeremy's project makes the Igor extremely uneasy (and Igors are no stranger to Things Man Was Not Meant To Know)
In the David Brin novel Kiln People, Mad Science is caused by one of several psychological complexes. The protagonist, a private detective with an interest in psychology, listens to the villain ramble and mentally goes down a list of symptoms, eventually diagnosing him with a textbook case of one of the complexes.
Played straight in the Morganville Vampires books, Myrnin is a Mad Scientist vampire who has developed a disease that only targets vampires, he tries to find a cure and managed to develop medication to slow it down, but often forgets to take it, turning him into a bloodthirsty monster, which is why he needs someone there to help him remember, but hiring an assistant often doesn't go well.
Lydia from The Chronicles Of Professor Jack Baling calls it Hypercognitive Dementia. It’s characterized by the ability to create devices that “regular” science would classify as impossible. However, there are downsides as well, including a marked reduction in empathy, an inability to see how one’s actions affect others, and a belief that the sufferer’s struggles are the only ones that matter.
Live Action TV
One episode of Monk has the eponymous detective put on medication for his crippling OCD, but the meds dampen his brilliant powers of observation and detection. He gives up the meds voluntarily when he realizes he can't remember the face of his dead wife.
The title character of House seems to need his physical pain and emotional bitterness in order to keep his remarkable (if unorthodox) medical talent. When he tries methadone he finds himself pain-free, cleans himself up, and seems genuinely happy... until he realizes he's lost his edge.
More precisely, being pain-free made him act uncharacteristically nice and accommodating to the worried parents of his patient which directly resulted in creating a health problem when the kid had actually just been dehydrated (he had a reaction to the contrast dye in their first test, everything else stemmed from that). That House believes he would have caught this right away otherwise was probably at least partly a rationalization on his part.
In the tabletop RPG setting Deadlands, "Mad Scientist" is actually a type of playable character. While it isn't a disease in the classic sense, being a Mad Scientist in this setting is an incurable condition, as demons whisper clues about devices that should not work, but do, into the ears of eager listeners, all in an attempt to hasten the end. Side effects include developing phobias of common items, depression, slavish obsession over one's creations, and possibly even horrific nightmares. Despite this—or perhaps because of it—Mad Scientists were among the most popular character types.
Although all Orks in Warhammer 40000 are already insane by human standards, their "mekboyz" and "painboyz" are even less stable, and infamous for performing acts of mad genius that unsettle even their fellow Orks. This is due to their very DNA - as a warrior race created by extinct precursors, some Orks have an instinctive understanding of science or medicine that grows through experimentation, compelling them to tinker in machine shops or perform unnecessary surgery on their squadmates. The end result is typically crude and dangerously unstable, but undeniably effective, even if the Ork can't explain how he got to it. It helps that Orks are latent psykers, to the extent that the fact that they expect a device to work allows their more insane creations to function in spite of the laws of physics.
In Mage The Ascension, the Sons of Ether were basically Mad Scientist technomancers, with a penchant for Victorian Steampunk or 1950s rayguns and giant robots. There was a thin line between maniacal Sons of Ether and Marauders (Awakened who have gone insane and warp reality all around them). Certainly a Technocrat who went Marauder would be a textbook example of a futuristic Mad Gadgeteer. In fact, the Technocracy called awakened mages and other supernaturals "reality deviants". Come to think of it, in Mage: The Ascension, paradigm dissonance is a form of insanity, if you define insanity as experiencing things differently from what the majority experiences. For the Awakened, if their avatar warps reality, then their hallucinations can turn real.
In Vampire The Masquerade, a few Malkavian vampires are scientists that have had the Malkav curse inflicted upon them. (There's even an archetype for playing such a character in the handbook.)
In Genius The Transgression, becoming a Genius warps you into something not quite human. On the one hand, Inspiration grants the ability to "delicately bend" the laws of physics, with higher levels of Inspiration naturally granting greater power. On the other hand, a more Inspired Genius will likely find it harder and harder to maintain his Obligation and, if they snap, they can become an Unmada, or worse, one of the Illuminated, at which point everyone and everythingstarts to look like a resource. Inspiration also seems to be contagious; Mortals exposed to mad science have a likelihood of becoming Beholden, if not a Genius in their own right.
Promethean: The Created uses a variant of this to explain the "demiurges" who created the Promethean Lineages — they were mortals unwittingly channeling the Divine Fire of the universe, the fundamental force of existence. However, humans weren't made to channel the Divine Fire, which meant the demiurges were a bit... off when they decided to bring human corpses back to life.
The projected lifespan of tinker gnome NPCs was not very long: that of one who (as a player character) took up heroic engineering was usually measurable on a clock, as opposed to a calendar.
A Miracle of Science, the Trope Namer, is about a reformed mad scientist turned police detective hunting down a mad roboticist who is threatening the stability of the solar system. The medications used in the treatment of SRMD makes one character, in his own words, "feel like [his] head is full of felt."
The genetic condition of Mad Science (aka hypercognitive dementia, also known as Walton's Disorder, also known popularly as Mad Genius; DSM-IV numeric code 29533) and its eventual treatment is also the major theme in Narbonic. There is talk of a cure, but at least in the form we see it, it turns the mad scientist into a Weirdness Censor-equipped mundane. Makes them impotent, too. Right at the end a character from the future claims the cure has been perfected.
Because of their shared 'verse, Mad Scientists show up in Skin Horse as well. Tigerlily and Captain Bram so far, but there's a whole "Institute for the Sanenote
"Sane" indicating "not suffering from Walton's Disorder", not necessarily "good" or "sensible"
Study of Mad Genius" out there. Not to mention St. Charlie, "a technocratic city dedicated to the irrational sciences".
Girl Genius is a Steampunk series in which "Sparks" run rampant. No cure in sight short of massive, irreversible brain damage. But the Spark who's working on it is getting much better about that whole "quality of life" thing! Sparks are compelled to build things - often extremely dangerous things - with minds of their own and little to no regard for consequences. It's been called 'The Madness Place' with three known levels. After the first, concern for safety starts to falter a bit - all safety.
Baron Klaus Wulfenbach is notable because he is the only Spark seen that is mostly immune to this, though he still has his moments. As Tarvek says to Gil when he realizes that the Baron has been slaver-wasped but is somehow Fighting from the Inside, Klaus Wulfenbach is special and breaks all of the "rules" concerning Sparks. Of course he's also a construct made from what was left of three Sparks who died in a lab accident
Hannelore's father in Questionable Content is implied to suffer from a version of this; in one strip he goes off his meds and builds her a "fully functional" robot boy. Well, almost fully functional; the fun parts are still in "beta". Private beta, obviously.
In the Whateley Universe webfiction, there exists a disorder by the name of Diedrick's Syndrome, in which an imbalance of neurotransmitters can, to paraphrase another troper, lead to the sufferer screaming insanely about destroying the planet because, say, he originally just lost his car keys. (Such an episode is referred to as "dricking out".) A devisor named Mega-Death is the current trope demonstrator. Ironically, he's a REALLY nice, friendly guy. Normally. It's been suggested that the Alphas are screwing with his inventions to induce more frequent 'drick-outs because they think it's funny.
Devisors also frequently forget to do things like eat or sleep — this isn't related to Diedrick's, devisors and gadgeteers just tend to get really into their work — and the cafeteria has "devisor specials" that the friends of the inventor in question can take to them in the labs, containing easy-to-eat stuff like lots of finger foods.
In the web novel Star Harbor Nights, people who have the Darkwell gene are somewhat mad-scientisty, moreso if they've inherited it from both their parents. The most normal of the double Darkwells we've met so far carries a stuffed rabbit with her everywhere and talks to it, and has a... very well-equipped lab in her basement:
"Perfect, the first batch of impervion was created in a lab accident that killed twenty-five people. And the man who invented it is certifiably insane. It's not something you should be able to whip up in your basement in a few hours."
Doctor Insano. Some of his origin stories have him being actually driven mad, either through bad videogames or through his anger at being rejected as a teenager.
Cave Johnson, the founding mind behind Aperture Science, in Portal. It's All There in the Manual that he inadvertently came up with an idea for a quantum hole in the space-time continuum, which he thought could have applications as a shower curtain.
In Portal 2 it's revealed that the central programming for testing produces a data burst akin to pleasure for the main AI when a test is completed, but the AI rapidly develop an immunity to it. This becomes a plot point when Wheatley takes over and begins to suffer "test withdrawal".
One episode of American Dad had the son's mentally disabled best friend go off his meds. He went from being a sweet mentally disabled child to being a Evil Brit Mad Genius. It turns out those pills have been keeping his Super-Powered Evil Side in check for years.
Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, following the example of the mad scientist at the top illustration, has a big lever as a on/off switch for the lights. He also has an obsession with installing self-destruction buttons and other buttons or dials that actually make it easier for Perry the Platypus to thwart Doof's plans. Even the titular characters aren't completely immune to the self-destruction button obsession as evidenced when they built a Rainbow-inator.
John Nash, the schizophrenic mathematician portrayed in A Beautiful Mind, found that his medications drained his energy and left him unable to accomplish anything, so he stopped taking them, electing instead to battle his mental illness with cold, methodical logic.
A lot of sufferers of bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression) or other mental disorders complain that the medication keeping them stable stifles their creativity.
Subcritical manic state (hypomania) has shown distinct connection with heightened creativity — especially for lateral and divergent thinking. It's not impossible that many geniuses labeled "mad scientists" in history carried gentler forms of bipolar disorder. Some might have even been the legendary unipolar hypomanics — professionally referred to as "Lucky Bastards".
Variations in the PPP1R1B gene are linked to a mess of mental disorders, including bipolar disorder. The protein that the gene codes for is also linked to increased intelligence.
Studies have shown that there's a slight trend for people with creative jobs to have a mental disorder. (For the science people: It's actually really slight, but supposedly outside their margin of error.) This isn't "everyone who does something well is insane," more like "if you do something well, you're statistically slightly more insane than everyone else."
People who are better at thinking outside the box than others may not realize when thinking inside the box is more appropriate, leading to perceived eccentricities.
Paul Erdős, a mathematician known for publishing more papers than any other mathematician to date and collaborating with damn near everyone in the field, took amphetamines. He was offered a sum of money by a friend to give up the habit for a month. He did, took the money, then went right back on amphetamines, claiming his sobriety impeded his ability to think.
"Before, when I looked at a piece of blank paper my mind was filled with ideas. Now all I see is a blank piece of paper."