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  • Useful Bodies: Humans in the Service of Medical Science in the Twentieth Century
  • Karen Ross
Jordan Goodman, Anthony McElligott, and Lara Marks, eds. Useful Bodies: Humans in the Service of Medical Science in the Twentieth Century. Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003. vi, 217 pp. $42.

Useful Bodies begins: "Human experimentation has its historians but not its history" (p. 1). This collection, the result of a 1998 workshop on the history of human experimentation held at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, seeks to remedy the situation. The editors hope to historicize human experimentation by moving beyond the issue of informed consent, which they identify as a "historical product rather than a tool of historical analysis" (p. 4). Instead they choose to focus on the role of the state in human experimentation as a way of exploring the political, professional, and cultural contexts in which the experiments were carried out.

In the introductory chapter, Goodman, McElligott, and Marks propose a history of twentieth-century human experimentation loosely organized into three eras: prestate (before the 1930s), state (1930s to 1960s), and poststate (1960s onward). These eras describe the rise of the state's interest and involvement in human experimentation in the first half of the twentieth century and the more ambiguous picture of an increasingly commercialized and international research community since the 1960s. This synthesis, supported by numerous examples from Europe and the United States, paints a picture of medical science in the service of the state. The editors claim that it is commonly assumed, wrongly, that medical science exists to find cures for the sick individual. "In fact its role in the modern era—indeed ever since Jenner's experiments with smallpox vaccination in 1798—has been to safeguard the collective national health" (p. 11). This is a provocative interpretation of the purpose of medical science and one that would benefit from further clarification. The useful body is one that serves the national body via medical science. The precise definition of usefulness depends on the particular historical context of that time and place.

The state's role in human experimentation is most clearly expounded by Jenny Stanton, Brian Balmer, Glenn Mitchell, and Gilbert Whittemore and Miriam Boleyn-Fitzgerald. They examine how the risks to individual subjects—only some of whom could be construed as volunteers—and to the public at large were weighed against concerns of national security during World War II and the Cold War. In each case, the authors consider how secrecy influenced the design of the experiments, including what, if anything, the subjects were told. [End Page 244]

Margaret Humphreys, David S. Jones, and Robert L. Martensen explore human experimentation in the context of professional roles and aspirations. Humphreys skillfully shows how Rockefeller Foundation scientist Mark Boyd tried to balance his often conflicting roles as physician and experimenter. Likewise, she examines the duality of patient and subject in the Florida state hospital where Boyd conducted his malaria experiments. Jones and Martensen evaluate human radiation experiments carried out at the University of California Berkeley from 1937 to 1962 in the context of the political and professional ambitions of the researchers as they struggled not only to create a new discipline, medical physics, but also to remain autonomous from the Atomic Energy Commission.

Last, Joel Howell and Rodney Hayward take a fresh look at the familiar story of the Willowbrook State School students who were intentionally infected with hepatitis in the 1950s. The authors reevaluate the claim, accepted for decades by both supporters and detractors, that virtually all Willowbrook students would have inevitably developed hepatitis naturally. Using the experimenters' own published data, Howell and Hayward reveal that only slightly more than half of all inmates likely would have become infected. They urge historians not to be intimidated by numerical data and suggest that reevaluating data may offer a new reading of a historical event.

The authors successfully carry out the editors' goal of historicizing human experimentation, although it is not always clear how the chapters fit within the larger framework laid out in the introductory chapter. However, each chapter is painstakingly researched from primary sources, and the endnotes will prove to be fertile ground...


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pp. 244-245
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