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Reviewed by:
Peter L. Twohig. Labour in the Laboratory: Medical Laboratory Workers in the Maritimes, 1900–1950 McGill-Queen’s University Press. xxii, 241. $70.00

Trade, craft, profession. Expertise, skill, knack. To inhabit the twentieth-century world of work was to navigate a universe in which many working-class claims to honour and prosperity proved vulnerable to ruthless logics of accumulation and rationalization. And so one flourished these and other honorific terms with faltering conviction, as in one field after another the capitalist labour markets pronounced their damning verdicts upon all claims to honour and status, privilege or protection.

In this hard-working monograph based on his Dalhousie doctoral thesis, Peter Twohig focuses on an understudied group, the Maritime medical laboratory workers from 1900 to 1950. Throughout, he takes aim at a 'professionalization narrative' within which the laboratory workers' story might be represented as one of a defence of a stable professional boundary and at an 'institutional specialization' narrative that posits a unilinear, smooth, and transparent pattern of functional differentiation. Some laboratory workers did indeed mount an 'ideological drive to professionalize,' but they ran 'headlong into the material reality of hospitals, which sought ways to economize by adding duties to existing staff or assigning multiple tasks to new staff.' Laboratory work often entailed socially necessary and demanding activities, as suggested by the care and precision required by vd tests. It was also often repetitious, occurred outside the public eye, and was subordinated to the 'higher' wisdom of physicians. Moreover, it evolved within an institutional complex – characterized by multiple levels of government, a medical school, a male-dominated medical profession – whose blurred boundaries and institutional complexities made [End Page 517] a mockery of any simplistic notion of occupational specialization. Patterns of gender discrimination, not to say oppression, to which Twohig devotes many of his best pages, also contributed to the 'fragile culture of professionalism' that predominated in laboratory work. Single women – who generally made up the majority of laboratory workers – were placed in a highly ambiguous position, containing 'contradictory elements of skill and service,' combining the careful observation and attention to detail of laboratory work with such highly repetitive tasks as cleaning dirty glassware, filing, and typing.

Did these laboratory workers constitute a 'profession'? Or is the very term, as Twohig suggests, both 'bountiful and barren for most historians,' arguably too elusive to be useful as a category of historical analysis? Were they, perhaps, overshadowed by the more full-blooded hegemonic claims of physicians, who 'occupied the critical position of laboratory director,' and 'who shared in the sociocultural network of medicine that valorized the interpretation of results over the preparation of those same results'? A neo-Marxist might also wonder if, by deepening the abbreviated representation of 'Marx' in this book, Twohig might not also have found valuable theoretical resources in Gramsci's work on traditional and organic intellectuals. Perhaps, like yesterday's coal miners and today's untenured academics, the laboratory workers were unable to constitute themselves as either a profession, craft, or trade, in part because, although their work was obviously functionally indispensable, and although they themselves might have a fierce sense of the skills demanded by their jobs, their sometimes repetitive work was not individual – a decisive consideration within a society and culture that honours, above all, the outstanding, the distinctive, and the original. Our social and political order bestows the prizes of cultural distinction (and protection from market forces) upon free-standing captains, and not upon integrated subalterns – and characteristically, upon the few men who set their own agenda, and not upon the many others living lives of compulsory multi-tasking. As Twohig so perceptively writes: 'The fact that these individuals could not be distinguished from one another homogenized and effectively devalued laboratory work to a large degree.' It is an observation that goes to the very liberal heart of the matter.

Researchers interested in the social and cultural history of medicine and in the history of women's work will be particularly interested in this sinewy monograph. Yet it might also be read with profit by other researchers – by Atlantic Canadian researchers wondering about whatever happened to the 'reform impulse' so evident...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 517-518
Launched on MUSE
2007-03-27
Open Access
N

Copyright

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