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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Dr Robert G W Kirk


Research Interests

My work examines non-human animals in human cultures, particularly nonhuman roles in science, medicine and technology, as well as the place of animals in history and historical writing. I am interested in how lived relationships drive historical change, making possible new identities, forms of knowledge, working practices, and moral/ethical values.

Laboratory Relations

My research on lived relations in the laboratory examines how, why, and to what consequence, animal welfare was integrated within the material cultures of experimental practice so as to sustain the transnational growth of the biomedical sciences, c.1945 to the present. By examining how moral concerns for animal wellbeing co-developed with changing material cultures of experimental science, I investigate the historical co-emergence of new identities (e.g. Animal Technicians), modes of animal care (e.g. laboratory animal medicine), technologies (Individually Ventilated Cages), understandings of animals (e.g. environment enrichment) and ethical principles (e.g. the Reduction, Refinement and Replacement of experimental animals or 3Rs). In doing so, I reconstruct the historical origins of a now dominant science of animal welfare and its specific form of ethical reasoning within which moral concerns for, and instrumental uses of, animals becomes inseparable.

Translational Relations

I am studying how human-animal relations shaped 20th century psychiatry, psychopharmacology and medicine. This research has an analytic focus about transitioning and translating knowledge and practice between bodies (human/nonhuman), sites (laboratory/clinic). By identifying social, cultural, economic, institutional and other factors that catalyzed or hindered translation, my work contributes to understanding contemporary policy and practice of translational medicine in mental health.

Multispecies Relations.

How might our perceptions of medicine, health and well-being change if they were thought of as more than human concerns? Whilst on first impression society may appear human, on closer examination it can be seen to consist of a multitude of species, human and nonhuman, sharing varied and complex relationships. Whether we think of the companion animals sharing our homes, the animals we farm, wildlife within urban and rural environments, or the microbes that inhabit our bodies, everyday human life is permeated by more than human relationships.

Supported by a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award, I lead the project Managing Multispecies Medicine: Biotherapy and the Ecological Vision of Health and Wellbeing. This research investigates how medicine has formed various partnerships with nonhuman species to enhance health and wellbeing. Clinical examples include the use of maggots to treat chronic wounds and the post-surgical use of leeches to maintain blood flow and assist recovery. In wider society, we might consider service animals, such as guide dogs, diabetes alert dogs, or emotional support animals. In each case, human health and well-being rest on the cultivation of interdependencies with other species. By reconstructing the historical development and current use of varied examples of what we might call 'multispecies medicine', my research opens up new perspectives on medicine, health and our changing relations to nonhuman life in society.


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