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American Quarterly 53.4 (2001) 563-589
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In the Name of Science:
Suffering, Sacrifice, and the Formation of American Roentgenology
Accounts of early American experimentation with x-rays tend to linger over the ghastly wounds of scientific practice: ruptured blisters, cancerous limbs, and pus-ridden grafts. 1 Curiously, these descriptions of decaying flesh are joined by vigorous assertions of practitioners' unflagging devotion to science; scrupulous litanies of dismemberment and death glorify, rather than trouble, the quest for new knowledge. In place of cool-headed assessments of radiation protection or surgical anesthetics, we find instead stress on experimenters' willing--even fervent--embrace of further pain. In 1926, for instance, the New York Times reported the seventy-second operation on Johns Hopkins University roentgenologist Frederick H. Baetjer, a physician whose years of research with x-radiation had already cost him eight fingers and one eye. "Despite the suffering he has undergone in the interest of science," the paper announced, Baetjer planned to "continue his work as long as he lives, fingers or no fingers." 2 Journalists were not alone in lauding investigators' eager return to the source of their wounds. Describing a young physician who continued his research with the ray even as chunks of his fingers, hands, and chest were disintegrating from cancer, a fellow x-ray investigator averred that the physician's "enthusiasm for his work never faded up to the moment of his end." 3 Even non-fatal research offered a chance to fortify the ethos of bodily punishment permeating early x-ray practice. The eminent x-ray experimenter and General Electric engineer William D. Coolidge, for example, was lampooned at company dinner by "N. Thusiasm," a figure who labored [End Page 563] away at new experimental problems "while everyone else slept." 4 What are we to make of these varied accounts of early twentieth-century scientific research, specifically their common focus on investigators' ardent suffering? Of what significance is this striking recurrence of "enthusiasm" (en theos)--with its connotations of spiritual possession, of "god within"? 5
To be sure, the valorization of voluntary suffering was hardly unique to early roentgenologists. In the decades immediately preceding the Great War, the moral authority of pain was marshaled equally by poets and pastors, generals and presidents, managers and laborers. Several recent histories have artfully amplified this trend, suggesting that renewed emphasis on stringent bodily disciplines--from fasting to self-flagellation--helped assuage fin-de-siècle anxieties about feminization, racial degeneration, and other perceived threats to bourgeois American manhood. 6 Less well understood, however, are the relations between such religious, bodily disciplines and the seemingly secular, cerebral realm of late nineteenth-century natural science. Indeed, exaggerated assessments of the "war" between science and religion in American history have long impaired such understandings. 7 Seen in this light, such a voluble preoccupation with debilitating, painful scientific investigation would seem to merit further consideration--a means by which to query received accounts of late nineteenth-century secularization.
Focusing on the work of early x-ray investigators, I here describe how voluntary self-wounding--which investigators frequently termed "sacrifice"--shaped the boundaries and character of one field of science--roentgenology--in the United States. My discussion does not address tantalizing (yet fundamentally opaque) questions of "personal motivation"--why some investigators embraced ulcerating wounds, spreading tumors, and repeated amputations while others sought available radiation protection. I focus not on the mindset of individuals who chose to suffer and die for science but rather on that "for" which they took on such pain. The essay concerns, in other words, the advent of a particular concept of enthusiastic suffering, one born in and through the allegedly godless world of late nineteenth-century physical research. In what historical conditions could roentgenologists claim to suffer and die in the name of "science"? 8 What effects did such sacrificial claims have on the organization and solidity of the new field of roentgenology? How, in turn, did the increasing cultural authority of science shape the limits and possibilities of voluntary suffering? [End Page 564...