Erika Dyck, Larry Stewart, eds. The Uses of Humans in Experiment: Perspectives from the 17th to the 20th Century. Clio Medica Series. Leiden: Brill - Rodopi, 2016. Illustrations. xii + 297 pp. $149.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-04-28670-2.
Reviewed by Michael Brown (University of Roehampton)
Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (January, 2018)
Commissioned by Darren N. Wagner
Human experimentation in medicine is a topic liable to induce unease; for many, it will evoke associations with Josef Mengele’s grotesque research on twins in Auschwitz or the deception and non-treatment of syphilitic black men at the Tuskegee Institute in the United States. It is for this reason, perhaps, that much of the literature on this topic has focused heavily on the ethical dimensions of such work. Even Susan Lederer’s pioneering study Subjected to Science (1997), while it paints a broader social historical picture of medical research on human subjects in the United States, is primarily concerned with such issues as patient consent and the elaboration of ethical codes of practice. As a result, there are many aspects of the fascinating, if often disturbing, history of human experimentation that remain unexplored, or at least underdeveloped. Moreover, because of the legacy of eugenics and racial science, much of the historical literature to date has focused on the twentieth century and on a specific set of practices and relations.
Erika Dyck and Larry Stewart’s edited collection aims to address these historiographical oversights, exploring the broader aspects of human experimentation and reminding us that the use of humans in medical and physiological research has “a long history and a complicated future” (p. 27). The collection’s chronological remit spans the period from the eighteenth century to around the 1970s and, in ten chapters, draws together research on Britain, Germany, the United States, and Canada. The first chapter by Anita Guerrini considers the physician and obstetrician John Douglas’s examination of the hermaphrodite Constantia Boon in 1715, suggesting that the unusually invasive probing of the latter’s body constituted a form of virtual vivisection. This is followed by Rob Ilife’s chapter on the physiological experiments of Luigi Galvani, Alexander von Humboldt, Johann Wilhelm Ritter, and Giovanni Aldini, including the well-documented galvanizing of the corpses of the hanged and guillotined. Focusing more specifically on von Humboldt and Ritter, Joan Steigerwald’s chapter explores the practices and limitations of galvanic self-experimentation, as these two men sought to use their own bodies to calibrate their readings from other animals, especially the notoriously unreliable frog. However, as she shows, both men also had to account for the subjectivity of their own experimental experiences and, while von Humboldt’s literary abilities enhanced his public reception, Ritter’s lack of polish in this regard contributed to his relative social isolation. Continuing on the theme of electricity, Paola Bertucci presents a case study of the late eighteenth-century provincial English Quaker surgeon-apothecary John Fell, emphasizing the importance of technical and mechanical competence in the career of an electrical therapist. Next comes Stewart’s essay on Thomas Beddoes, which considers both the radical political connotations of pneumatic chemistry and the ways in which such practices bridged the gap between clinic and laboratory and between therapy and experiment. Moving to the late nineteenth century, Elizabeth Neswald demonstrates neatly how the inherent instability and resistance of the human subject posed methodological and practical problems for research into the physiology of nutrition in fin-de-siècle Germany. Katherine Zwicker’s account of the use of radium as an alternative to surgery for cancer sufferers in the United States in the 1920s, meanwhile, considers the “fluid relationship between the practices of medicine and science” and the “blurring of clinical boundaries and scientific experiment” that this novel therapy involved (p. 213). The last three chapters of the collection are concerned, for the most part, with eugenics and racial science. Focusing on the Tuskegee Institute, though not on the infamous syphilis study, the chapter by Paul Lombardo uncovers the neglected history of an anthropometrical study by Charles B. Davenport and Morris Steggerda, which used measurements of the students at the institute as part of a wider eugenical project whose agenda was to discourage miscegenation. The next chapter, by Paul Weindling, seeks to uncover more about the victims of Nazi experimentation and provides evidence of resistance from both the subjects of experiment and, occasionally, those within the military-medical hierarchy. Lastly, Dyck’s chapter explores the collaboration between psychiatrists and eugenicists in the “treatment” by sterilization of boys and young men at the Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives in Red Deer Alberta, Canada, a program that lasted from 1928 to 1972 and that was part of a more general attempt by Canadian practitioners to link sexual behavior, low intelligence, and mental illness.
As the eclectic range of subjects covered in these chapters suggests, this collection presents a wealth of fascinating material and throws up any number of issues. If there is one unifying, or at least recurrent theme, besides the well-acknowledged ethical problems associated with such activities, it is the fundamental subjectivity and inherent agency of the human experimental subject as they repeatedly fail to conform to, or even actively resist, the essentialist and objective demands of the experimental method. In general, however, this collection is somewhat lacking in intellectual coherence. It also exhibits a slightly peculiar chronological imbalance. As readers may note, the first five chapters focus on the eighteenth century, while chapter 6 leaps ahead to the very late nineteenth century and the last four are concerned with the twentieth. The bulk of the nineteenth century therefore remains unconsidered. Both of these problems doubtless stem, at least in part, from the book’s origins in a workshop where one is necessarily limited by what papers are offered and accepted. Nonetheless, I wonder whether a greater effort could have been made to plug this gap in the coverage. I also wonder whether the introduction might have done a slightly better job of providing the collection with a stronger thematic structure. As it stands, it is somewhat awkwardly written and, though it gestures toward some of the key themes, it provides less of a historiographical context or intellectual framework than a historical overview of premodern human experimentation.
The essays themselves also vary in terms of the depth of their analytical engagement. For example, there is repeated slippage between the idea of experiment and that of therapy. In itself this is not a problem. Rather it might well serve as an important theme for the collection and, indeed, some of the authors tackle the issue head on, making it a key point of their analysis. Others, however, chose to elide the two or to interpret the phrase “experiment” as broadly as possible. Furthermore, while the collection succeeds in highlighting the slipperiness of the subject/object distinction in relation to human experimentation, it does not so much resolve these issues as reproduce them. Except in a few cases, most notably the examples of self-experimentation, we hear much more about the experimenter than about the experimented upon. Maybe this is inevitable. Perhaps, as with the eternal quest to uncover the “patient’s voice” in the clinical encounter, we are to be forever frustrated by the limitations of the archive. And yet, perhaps more attention could have been paid to the interactions between experimenter and experimental subject. While such relationships are implicit in almost all of these case studies, they are not always foregrounded as effectively as they might be.
This collection has its limitations; few edited collections can say otherwise. Nonetheless, it certainly represents a most welcome contribution to the historiography of human experimentation in medicine and physiology and constitutes an impressively broad chronological sweep of research, demonstrating beyond doubt the editors’ claims for the complexity and durability of the issues surrounding this most contentious of scientific practices.
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Michael Brown. Review of Dyck, Erika; Stewart, Larry, eds., The Uses of Humans in Experiment: Perspectives from the 17th to the 20th Century.
H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews.
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