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Annals of Science
ISSN: 0003-3790 (Print) 1464-505X (Online) Journal homepage:
The Use of Humans in Experiment: Perspectives
from the 17 to the 20 Century
Margaret Carlyle
To cite this article: Margaret Carlyle (2017): The Use of Humans in Experiment: Perspectives from
the 17 to the 20 Century, Annals of Science, DOI: 10.1080/00033790.2017.1390159
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Published online: 25 Oct 2017.
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Date: 26 October 2017, At: 04:32
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The Use of Humans in Experiment: Perspectives from the 17th to the 20th Century,
edited by E. Dyck and L. Stewart, Leiden, Brill, 2016, xii + 297 pp., €115.00, $149.00,
ISBN 9789004286702.
Humans have always figured in scientific experimentation, but not always — or exclusively — in the
role of investigators. They have also served as subjects and instruments, as well as investigatorsturned-subjects (in the case of self-experimentation). The many roles humans play in medico-scientific experiment, from the Renaissance to the mid-twentienth century, are the subject of Erika Dyck
and Larry Stewart’s edited volume. The ten contributors tackle topics as disparate as hermaphrodites,
nutrition and eugenics, and showcase humans in a variety of experimental settings. They perform as
intermediaries between investigators and such apparatus as galvanic gauges, pneumatic devices,
radium therapy and anthropometric devices. Occasionally, humans are the apparatus — and the
only ones capable of registering and interpreting desired experimental data.
The chronological arrangement of the chapters emphasizes the distinct concerns of early modern
and modern practitioners. On the surface, the case studies reiterate the importance of temporal
specificity: an orphan receiving a ‘polite’ electric shock by an enlightened showman seems a
world apart from the corporate imperative of twentieth-century prophylactic trials. Spaces of knowledge-making are also seemingly at odds: what does an ornately decorated parlour of scientific sociability have in common with a white-washed, sanitized clinic room? The technologies of persuasion at
the disposal of experimenters also reveal the importance of tracking change over time. Early modern
investigators did not have procedural templates or uniform conventions to fall back on, unlike their
modern-day counterparts; rather, they had to create them.
Lines of continuity and engagement nonetheless indicate the perennial trials and tribulations of
human-centred research, whether in the calibration of instruments and subjects or the careful
navigation — or wilful ignorance — of contemporary codes of ethics. Moreover, as early modern
human-based trials consolidated the epistemological authority of experimentation, questions
about its contours reverberate in twentieth-century clinical and laboratory contexts. The ideological
commitments of both investigators and their funders are never far behind the practical and moral
concerns of practitioners across the ages.
Interdisciplinarity — and indeed, interspatiality — is thus a signal feature of biomedical research
over time. Rob Iliffe’s account of the development of the Voltaic pile as a viable research tool indicates the opportunities for specialist cooperation in a period of emerging professionalization. The
late eighteenth-century pioneers of medical electricity who applied the laws of physics and chemistry
to human physiology trespassed disciplinary fault lines in much the same way as the turn-of-thetwentieth-century physicians and physicists at the heart of Katherine Zwicker’s account of
pioneering cancer treatments at New York’s Memorial Hospital. While clinical and laboratory concerns converged fairly seamlessly in the interests of the patient, the procurement of radium rays was
both costly and labour intensive. Even more difficult was the task of isolating radium’s efficacy in
alleviating specific cancers. Here we are reminded that the anxious period preceding the triumphalist
‘blackboxing’ of such cures places pressures on the investigator to allay public concern over the
misapplication of an uncertain technology.
Patients also had their say and occasionally emerged as a coalition of the willing. The awareness
that electrical current could kill even more easily than it might cure did not deter Paolo Bertucci’s
healthy aristocrats from queuing up for electrical therapies in eighteenth-century England. This clientele appeared far less nervous than practitioners, who expressed concern over the unpredictability
of electrical phenomena. Mid-century electricians ultimately relied on patient testimonials in order
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to build their reputations, while their late-century counterparts instead focused on showcasing their
dexterity in calibrating the instrument’s performance. Building trust thus underwrote therapeutic
credibility and was an ever-evolving currency.
While the instability of radium rays and electricity impeded matching treatments to specific ailments, galvanic experimenters in nineteenth-century Germany confronted the more complicated —
if elementary — problem of disambiguating the object of study from the apparatus used to measure
it. Joan Steigerwald’s chapter explains how the unreliability of frogs as electrical subjects led to selfexperiment by figures such as Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Ritter. These men vouched for
ascertaining experimental phenomena through experiential knowledge. Their objective to bring
clarity to the subject of electrical current might read as heroic science, but their acts of self-discipline
in producing reliable evidence were ultimately much more mundane. So, too, was the task of consuming a set diet both in and outside of the laboratory, in the case of the subjects of Elizabeth Neswald’s account of animal and human metabolic studies in 1870s Germany. She underscores how the
stabilization of nutrition science required attentive selection of appropriate subjects and the artful
negotiation of their needs without compromising experimental objectives. The seemingly closed system of food intake and discharge through the alimentary canal did not convert into the kinds of scrutable data that experimentalists had anticipated.
Such experiments in nutrition science point to the asymmetry of experimenter and subject, the
latter vacillating between the poles of coerced body and active agent. This uneasiness raises larger
questions about informed consent and its disregard that are not unique to a modern-day litigious
medical landscape. Anita Guerrini’s Charing Cross hermaphrodite, examined by the physician
James Douglas, for instance, presents a subject who is equally aware and subjected. Fitting, perhaps,
given that to contemporaries the hermaphrodite was an ambiguous figure — both a ‘monster’ at the
margins of the natural world and a compelling object of scientific inquiry, who defied contemporary
notions of sex. In the name of assigning a sex to their subjects, investigators were given moral licence
to undertake invasive, painful physical examinations and shameful scrutiny of hermaphrodites.
Just as the role of coercion in medical trials did not appear at odds with Enlightenment notions of
progress, murky morality is at the heart of Erika Dyck’s study of eugenics experiments on adolescent
boys in post-World War II Albertan hospitals. Here attempts were made to link psychotic disorders
to theories of degeneration, which resulted in such irreversible outcomes as the sterilization of those
who volunteered themselves to treatment (believing they had transgressed the bounds of normalcy).
The overcrowding of facilities also placed pressures on specialists to ramp up experimental regimes
and reduce the number of psychiatric patients in provincial care. South of the border during World
War II, experiments linking race and the pathology of syphilis generated extensive funding. Paul
Lombardo’s account of the early American eugenics programme that coalesced at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute attunes us to the exploitation of African American men in an ideologically driven bid to
distil the characteristics of the ‘Negro’ race.
The slippage from individual abnormality to racial degeneracy, with medical treatments to match,
reached an unprecedented expression in Nazi concentration camps, where prisoners were subjected
to heinous forms of torture in the guise of medical science. Rather than rehash the script that these
programmes were delivered by a single, if delusional, organizing authority — that is, the Nazis —
Paul Weindling instead suggests that human experimentation in concentration camps operated
beyond the ideological bounds of racial purity. Major pharmaceutical companies like IG Farben,
for instance, sponsored malaria and typhus research on prisoners. By peeling back the narrative
that all such experimentation stemmed from Nazi pseudoscience, Weindling invites us to question
the exculpation of the mainstream German medico-scientific community in this history.
These contributions make clear that there is no watershed moment where ‘ethics’ arrives on the
scene of human experimentation. Sources of ethical authority are historically contingent and wideranging, presenting both as individuals — from theologians to lawyers — and groups, like the general
public. What they share is a tendency to invoke the mantra of utility or design to justify experiments
that trespassed contemporary moral boundaries. In this way, the pain induced on animals or humans
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is rationalized as the source of greater future good or as part of god’s plan. This is not to say that the
moral economy of experiment failed to accommodate or curb the course of dangerous and painful
medico-scientific trials. But when these concerns come from the patients themselves, there is the ageold archival and methodological difficulty of adequately restoring the ‘view from below’.
This volume does not systematically address these challenges, though there are glimpses of patient
pushback that serve as helpful indicators of how forms of resistance to coercion bear out. Some concentration camps prisoners, for example, slyly acted out the role of saboteur in the guise of dutiful
assistants. Perhaps more than any other contributor, Larry Stewart clarifies how experimentation
might be imbued with and appropriated as a political ideology of resistance. He charts the pneumatic
experiments of late eighteenth-century English practitioners like Joseph Priestley who actively
sought to undermine social privilege and promote a view of science-making as an open and participatory activity. Experimentalists showed concern for workers’ chronic exposure to polluted airs
in manufacturing towns. One is nonetheless left wondering if the instance of a maid being left to
supervise the machinery can — or should — be read as an exercise in the democratization of science.
The myriad contexts of scientific consciousness in shaping the ethics and politics of engagement
with human experimental subjects point to the practitioner’s prerogative in the construction of medico-scientific knowledge. His or her agenda is, after all, at the heart of these cases studies. But whether
scientists and physicians are out to persuade audiences of the virtue of eugenics or democracy, the
cultivation of the eyewitness and forms of subject testimonial over the longue durée indicate that
science making abhors the investigator-in-a-vacuum. It follows that what constitutes a ‘trial’ — as
opposed to a ritualized polite demonstration or a brand of torture by the ‘master’ race — is determined by the context of its reception. Likewise, the metanarratives deployed by scientists to justify
or promote their technologies is heavily contingent on their powers of persuasion.
The Uses of Humans in Experiment uncovers human roles in regimes of scientific and medical
experimentation — as object, as subject and as subjected. The collection anchors received notions
concerning human experimentation — that prisoners and madmen have long been coerced subjects
or that ‘science’ has often served as a veil for animal and human torture — while nonetheless complicating the Foucauldian arc of institutionalization, wherein the clinic is deemed the locus of modern medicine. Gone, too, is the stock Bedlamite character of Victorian medicine. The volume also
does well to resist assumptions of progress, by gesturing to more unsettling narratives of coercion
and complicity, abuse and obedience, consent and exploitation. In doing so, the authors reveal
the anxieties and ambiguities — legal, moral, political and epistemological — of a human-driven narrative of experimentation, where actors blur boundaries between trial and therapy, objectivity and
subjectivity, credibility and incredulity. Finally, this book is a helpful resource in a sparsely populated
genre that usefully compliments the kinds of questions that Ofer Gal and Charles T. Wolfe ask in
their similarly titled collection, The Body as Instrument and Object of Knowledge (2010).
Margaret Carlyle
Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA.
© 2017 Margaret Carlyle
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