Seminars and Panels

Welfare, Work, and Witness: Why Clinical Research Can Survive the Death of a Healthy Human Subject

Professor Laura Stark

Apr 3 2015
12:30 P.M. - 2:00 P.M.
267 Health and Biomedical Sciences Center (HBSC)

❖ Lunch starts at 12:00 pm

During the early twentieth century, medical researchers rarely experimented on healthy human beings who had no debt to the state. By the end of the century, millions of healthy people with full civil rights enrolled in medical experiments each year. This talk explains how serving as a “normal control” became the norm and sustained American medicine in the postwar decades—to the extend that the death of a human subject could be managed administratively as a “routine tragedy.” Using the case of the US National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center, the talk argues that this shift was made possible through a series of unprecedented relationships between American colleges, church organizations, and government agencies in the decades following World War II.

The story follows the everyday lives of religious service workers, unemployed laborers, and college students who lived inside the Clinical Center for months and sometimes years while they served as research material (and also looked for work, witnessed the life of Jesus, and earned college credit). The book draws on a new vernacular archive that includes three types of materials: oral history interviews that Stark completed with nearly one hundred former normal patients; ephemera from interviewees’ time at the Clinical Center (including correspondence, photographs, and keepsakes) donated to Stark’s project; and NIH’s medical records of the studies that former participants released to Stark at the time of their interview. The project also brings together for the first time materials from established historical collections of the US government and of dozens of church organizations and colleges that send young people to NIH. By taking seriously the pillow fights and the first kisses, the bible clubs and the movie nights, that animated the NIH clinic as much as the medical experiments, the project suggests how scholars might refigure settings conventionally understood in exclusively medical terms. Read more...


Special Event: Lone Star History of Science Meeting

Writing the 'Origin' with Burned Fingers: Darwin's Penance for the "Sin of Speculation"

Professor Alistair Sponsel

Apr 3 2015
4:00 P.M. - 5:30 P.M.
267 Health and Biomedical Sciences Center (HBSC)

❖ Reception starts at 3:00 pm

Charles Darwin was notoriously slow to publish his theory of evolution by natural selection. His reticent approach to publishing on species is generally attributed to his supposed fear of advocating the potentially controversial doctrine of transmutation. I argue, by contrast, that Darwin’s caution was the result of a specific scientific embarrassment in his past. What concerned him most about the prospect of publishing a theory of evolution was not the topic, evolution, but the general act of publishing a theoretical book. The one other time he had tried to do so, as a young man using his theory of coral reef formation to offer an ambitious account of the history of the earth and its inhabitants, the public criticism of his “speculations” drove him nearly to despair and made him unable to deliver the book he had promised. It was this experience which shaped Darwin’s authorial priorities for his next grand theory: evolution by natural selection. He stopped thinking of his private speculations on species as an exhilarating distraction from the challenge of writing a geological book and began to plot a conservative course designed to insulate him (and eventually his species theory itself) from charges of rash speculation. I thus show that Darwin’s well-known authorial decisions on the way to publishing On the Origin of Species were made as attempts to avoid repeating, and ideally to compensate for, the missteps he believed he had made as a young author. In turn I argue that our understanding of scientific authorship has been distorted by the assumption that it must have been the topic, rather than the mode of presentation, that determined how risky it felt to be the prospective author of a theory. Read more...