- The Uses of Humans in Experiment: Perspectives from the 17th to the 20th Century ed. by Erika Dyck and Larry Stewart
Scholarly discussion of human experimentation has focused predominantly on medical trials and frequently the issue of consent: did human subjects willingly and knowingly participate in medical research? This smart collection of essays creates a much broader perspective by examining instances of humans and their bodies as experimental objects, scientific instruments, and measuring devices. The editors adopt the Foucauldian framework that the modern episteme in which life itself became an object of scientific inquiry emerged around 1800, and correspondingly that humans are both subjects and objects of scientific practice. The essays are arranged chronologically from the seventeenth century through the twentieth century and geographically are limited to examples from Europe, the United States, and Canada. Erasing the boundaries between history of science and history of medicine, the contributing authors present experimental inquiry as intimately tied to the human body and call for new understandings of ethics. Questions of informed consent fail to address the variety of ways individuals’ bodies became part of experiments and the range of ethical considerations that shaped experimental practice.
Anita Guerrini’s thought-provoking exposé shows how medical inspection of hermaphrodites’ bodies in early eighteenth-century England constituted human experimentation, abridging the existing moral codes regarding the privacy of human bodies and the limits of medical examination. Later in the century, discoveries of electricity and different gases provided fecund areas for human experimentation. Whether using the amputated limbs of surgical patients, the decapitated bodies of guillotined prisoners, patients with incurable diseases, or their own bodies, experimenters freely explored the repercussions of completing a galvanic circuit or inhaling different gases. Rob Iliffe traces the progression of electrical research from animal experiment to human remains, to self-experimentation in the wake of Galvani’s and Volta’s pioneering work. Joan Steigerwald contrasts the different receptions Alexander van Humboldt’s and Johann Wilhelm Ritter’s extensive and painful electrical self-experiments received and attributes them to the presence of witnesses in Humboldt’s case and their absence in Ritter’s: [End Page 808] the gentlemanly Humboldt relying on servants and friends, while Ritter, from a poor family, conducting self-experiments alone in his rented room. During these revolutionary times, there were no hard and fast boundaries between subject and object, laboratory and hospital, the body and the instrument.
Larry Stewart explores these murky boundaries in the pneumatic experiments conducted by experimenters on themselves, their patients, and healthy subjects and concludes, “The limits of experimenting were undetermined. For [the reformist English doctor Thomas Beddoes], promoting chemical knowledge was sufficient reason for human trials” (p. 144). In some instances, trials that began ostensibly for medical purposes in fact advanced scientific knowledge. Paola Bertucci follows the colorful career of John Fell, a Quaker surgeon, who, in efforts to promote electrical therapies, advanced the experimental study of electricity more than the actual treatment of patients. Katherine Zwicker pursues a similar theme in her illuminating account of the collaboration between doctors and physicists in the early days of radium therapy where patients were treated but also served as experimental subjects to quantify doses of radiation.
Making bodies scientific instruments, however, is not straightforward. Attempts to calibrate the body as an instrument often failed, despite heroic efforts of self-experimentation. When experimenters turned to other human beings, things became even more complicated. Elizabeth Neswald draws on Andrew Pickering’s scholarship on scientific practice and argues that the relationship between experimenters and objects (here humans) is “a dialectic of resistance and accommodation” (p. 175). This can be comic: Neswald captures the frustration of nutritionists trying to get a human subject (a carefully selected Bavarian soldier) to consume only potatoes for several days. It can also be courageous: Paul Weindling includes details of sabotage and resistance among prisoners subjected to experiments in concentration camps during World War II.