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Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine

Nonhuman Animals in Science, Technology and Medicine

NIH Poster: Diseases are not conquered by people alone
NIH poster drawing attention to the role of animals in medical research.

Nonhuman animals have long played important material and representational roles across science, technology and medicine but can animals possess a history beyond their mere biology? This question forms the basis of several strands of research at CHSTM. Rather than anti-humanist, this question should be properly understood as a continuation of our collective effort to better understand what it is to be human.

From this perspective, Rob Kirk's research explores changings ways in which the biomedical sciences have held human and nonhuman in productive tension. Within the laboratory, for instance, managing differences has allowed animals to be understood as biologically similar enough to be utilised as experimental models for human pathologies yet ethically distinct enough so as to make these uses permissible. Rob investigates how experimental and ethical practices have co-developed through processes that have helped to drive wider historical changes in the relations between humans and animals across societies. His recent research addresses how changing notions of animal welfare have become materialized through ethical practices (e.g. the 3Rs). Consequently, the physical fabric of the laboratory and animal house can be seen to have transformed (e.g. through environmental enrichment) in line with the moral debate over animal experimentation outside the laboratory. This work reconstructs 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, laboratory animals becomes inseparable. Understanding how concerns for animal wellbeing have co-developed with changing material cultures of experimental science is of critical importance to appreciating the complexity of the contemporary moral debate around the use of nonhuman animals within the life sciences. For instance, it can inform present efforts within the life sciences to increase the transparency of their activities through open dialogue with the public (as embodied in the Concordat on Openness on Animal Research).

The history of agricultural animals comes to prominence in Andrew Ball's doctoral research on the historical development of humane animal slaughter (supervised by Rob Kirk and Carsten Timmermann). Andrew is investigating how diverse factors, including material technologies, scientific understanding, economic calculation, public health and moral values, interacted over time to shape slaughter practices and the designs of abattoirs in twentieth century Britain.

CHSTM is committed to redressing the historiographic balance by encouraging the development of histories of animal health and veterinary medicine. In a programmatic contribution to the Oxford Handbook of the History of Medicine, Rob Kirk and Michael Worboys asked the community to reflect on why and to what cost the history of medicine has become - by default - the history of human medicine. The contemporary rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and cross-species strains of flu, together with greater recognition of other zoonosis, invite historians to consider to what extent the history of medicine has always been a history of health and disease in human and animal. This theme informs Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys' approach to the history of rabies, Michael Worboys' recent work on distemper, as well as Rob Kirk's research exploring how changing regimes of infection control have shaped human-animal relations.

In 2010, representing a major investment in the development of animal studies in the UK, the Arts and Humanities Research Council awarded CHSTM a grant to study The 'Dog Fancy' and Fancy Dogs: Pedigree, Breeding and Britishness, 1859-1914. Led by Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys (in collaboration with Julie Marie-Strange of the School of Arts, Histories and Cultures), this project examined how science informed changing practices of dog breeding. In addition to varied publications this research informed a major exhibition at the Manchester Museum titled Breed: The British & their Dogs, illustrating how changes in British culture can be viewed as products of the changing affectionate relationships between humans and dogs. With the support of the Wellcome Trust, Neil and Mick are extending this work by investigating how the biomedical sciences have contributed to the making of the modern dog in the twentieth century.

Dogs also feature in Rob Kirk's study of Mine Detector Dogs, which addresses how changing understandings of animal training and nonhuman sensory worlds has shaped the possibilities of cross-species labour. Comparable themes inform Neil Pemberton's recent work on bloodhounds, police investigation and 'canine forensics'.

Within therapeutic medicine, through their study of the medical leech, Rob Kirk and Neil Pemberton have explored how relationships have shaped human and animal identities over time. In their study of leeches, arguably one of our oldest companion species, reveals how value judgements concealed in the categorising of animals have shaped, and been shaped by, perceived relationships between humans and other species. For instance, Rob and Neil have critically unpacked the tension between the increasing tendency to represent the leech as a parasite in modern culture and this animals' long role in maintaining human health across Eastern and Western medical history up to the present. They contend that Hirudo medicinalis can help historians to rethink medicine by revealing medical practice to have always been a matter of managing interspecies relations.

Against the context of contemporary debates over animal rights, laboratory experiment, transgenic organisms, pedigree breeding, companion animal keeping, and industrialized farming, the question of the animal has never been more pertinent, its history never more necessary. Yet, all too often, the animal is poorly represented in historical study. Such a position becomes increasingly untenable in a world structuring its health services to withstand a pandemic predicted to originate from its industrialized farms. Research at CHSTM under this theme, therefore, conceptually mirrors growing recognition that we live in a shared world, just as human ways of life are inseparable from our material interactions with other forms of life, so too are human identities and cultures. Consequently, we seek to understand historical change by adopting critically orientated historiographical approaches that shun preconceived notions of human exceptionalism in favour of those that emphasise co-emergence. By doing so, researchers at CHSTM seek to redress the imbalance of anthropocentric histories and develop a historically grounded understanding of the epistemological and ontological connections between human and animal across science, technology and medicine. By integrating the role of nonhuman animals within our histories of science, technology, and medicine, research at CHSTM offers a unique contribution to the growing interdisciplinary field of Animal Studies.

Recent publications

Robert G. W. Kirk (2014) The Invention of the Stressed Animal and the Development of a Science of Animal Welfare, c. 1947-1986. In David Cantor and Edmund Ramsden (eds.) Stress, Trauma and Adaptation in the Twentieth Century (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press), pp.242-262.

Robert G. W. Kirk (2014) In dogs we trust? Intersubjectivity, response-able relations, and the making of mine detector dogs. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 50, 1-36.

Michael Bresalier and Michael Worboys (2013). 'Saving the lives of our dogs': the development of canine distemper vaccine in interwar Britain. British Journal for the History of Science

Robert G W Kirk and Neil Pemberton (2013) Leech. London: Reaktion.

Neil Pemberton, (2013) The Bloodhound's Nose Knows? Dogs and Detection in Anglo-American culture. Endeavour, 37, 196-208.

Neil Pemberton (2013) Bloodhounds as detectives' dogs, slum stench and late-victorian murder investigation. Cultural & Social History, 10, 69-91.

Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys (2012) Rabies in Britain, Dogs, Disease and Culture, 1830-2000. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Robert G W Kirk (2012) 'Life in a germ-free world': isolating life from the laboratory animal to the bubble boy. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 86(2), 237-75.

Neil Pemberton, (2012) Hounding Holmes: Arthur Conan Doyle, Bloodhounds and Sleuthing in the Late-Victorian Imagination, Journal of Victorian Culture, 17(4) (2012), 454-467.

Robert G W. Kirk (2012) 'Standardization through Mechanization': Germ-Free Life and the Engineering of the Ideal Laboratory Animal. Technology and Culture, 53(1), 61-93.

Robert G.W. Kirk and Neil Pemberton (2011) Re-imagining Bleeders: The Medical Leech in the Nineteenth Century Bloodletting Encounter. Medical History, 2011, 55(3), 355-360.

Robert G W Kirk and Michael Worboys (2011) Medicine and Species: One Medicine, One History? The Oxford Handbook of the History of Medicine. (pp. 561-577). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Robert G W Kirk (2010) A Brave New Animal for a Brave New World: The British Laboratory Animals Bureau and the Constitution of International Standards of Laboratory Animal Production and Use, circa 1947-1968. Isis, 101(1), 62-94.

Robert G W Kirk (2009) Between the clinic and the laboratory: ethology and pharmacology in the work of Michael Robin Alexander Chance, c. 1946-1964. Medical History, 53: 513-536.

Robert G W Kirk (2008) 'Wanted - standard guinea pigs': standardization and the experimental animal market in Britain, c. 1919-1947. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, 39(3): 280-291.

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