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Suffering For Science

Suffering For Science: Reason and Sacrifice in Modern America

Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Suffering For Science
    Book Description:

    From gruesome self-experimentation to exhausting theoretical calculations, stories abound of scientists willfully surrendering health, well-being, and personal interests for the sake of their work. What accounts for the prevalence of this coupling of knowledge and pain-and for the peculiar assumption that science requires such suffering? In this lucid and absorbing history, Rebecca M. Herzig explores the rise of an ethic of "self-sacrifice" in American science. Delving into some of the more bewildering practices of the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, she describes when and how science-the supposed standard of all things judicious and disinterested-came to rely on an enthralled investigator willing to embrace toil, danger, and even lethal dismemberment. With attention to shifting racial, sexual, and transnational politics, Herzig examines the suffering scientist as a way to understand the rapid transformation of American life between the Civil War and World War I.Suffering for Science reveals more than the passion evident in many scientific vocations; it also illuminates a nation's changing understandings of the purposes of suffering, the limits of reason, and the nature of freedom in the aftermath of slavery.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-3764-1
    Subjects: Health Sciences

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction: Truth at Any Price
    (pp. 1-16)

    In 1802, a medical student from New Jersey named Stubbins Ffirth sought to determine the cause of contagion for yellow fever, a disease then so widespread that it was often referred to as the “American plague.” At the time of Ffirth’s investigations, prevailing wisdom held that the fever spread through its characteristic “black vomit,” a discharge darkened by the victim’s internal bleeding. To determine whether the vomit did in fact convey disease, Ffirth collected a large quantity of it from dying fever patients. Then, on the fourth day of October 1802, Ffirth began to experiment: “I made an incision in...

  2. 1 Willing Captives
    (pp. 17-36)

    In an 1884 lecture at the Smithsonian Institution, physician Charles K. Mills recounted some of the hazards of scientific investigation. Delivered as part of a prestigious series dedicated to “the promotion of medical science,” the lecture enumerated the range of diseases (albuminuria, temporary nervous collapse, insanity) that might afflict the overworked scientist. Valiant scientific labors—“assiduous work with the microscope, steady concentration upon mathematical and engineering problems, and the laborious collection and comparison of data”—threatened the fragile investigator with a host of psychopathologies. “To some minds,” Mills summarized, “scientific work has a fascination which becomes a source of peril;...

  3. 2 The Bonds of Science
    (pp. 37-46)

    Like the colonial theologians and regimental soldiers discussed in chapter 1, sacrificial scientists in the late nineteenth-century encountered a problem of exchange. Would suffering be compensated by new scientific knowledge? If so, just how readily ought one to embrace it? Might particularly painful, spectacular effort guarantee science’s favor? As before, such questions gave practical form to the question of how one should live. And as before, answers to such ethical questions occasioned appraisal of the unseen force consummating the exchange. Where God or nation once bestowed value on the self’s offerings, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, science...

  4. 3 Purists
    (pp. 47-63)

    In a rousing address delivered to incoming students in 1875, Harvard professor of chemistry and mineralogy Josiah Cooke readied his charges for the painful life that lay before them. To grapple with nature, Cooke insisted, one must be prepared to “labor long in the dark before the day begins to dawn.” The toil of scientific work, however, wouldn’t end with mere deprivation of slumber. Ideally, one should strive to exceed in zeal that “student who would cut off his right hand rather than be guilty of a conscious untruth.”¹ Reprinted inPopular Science Monthly, Cooke’s interweaving of devotion, truth, and...

  5. 4 Explorers
    (pp. 64-84)

    As with pure science, a certain lack of utility defines Arctic polar exploration. Explorers themselves are quick to point out that, to reach the pole, is to reach a “fruitless” place.¹ Devoid of the gems, minerals, and spices of Africa and the Americas, the frozen polar sea offers no tangible reward. In the words of one historian of the Arctic, the pole “might be regarded as the most useless piece of real estate on earth.”² Of course, there were furs to be had in some parts of the Arctic, oil in others, and even the pole itself could turn a...

  6. 5 Martyrs
    (pp. 85-99)

    Even more than narratives of polar exploration, accounts of early American roentgenology tend to linger over the ghastly wounds of its participants: ruptured blisters, cancerous limbs, and pus-ridden grafts. These descriptions of decaying flesh are paired with vigorous assertions of experimenters’ willingness to suffer: litanies of dismemberment and death glorify rather than trouble X-ray investigators’ unflagging devotion to science. In lieu of cool-headed assessments of radiation protection or surgical anesthetics, we find instead an emphasis on a deliberate, even fervent, embrace of further pain.¹ In 1926, for instance, theNew York Timesreported the seventy-second operation on Johns Hopkins University...

  7. 6 Barbarians
    (pp. 100-115)

    In the closing paragraphs of Sinclair Lewis’s 1925 novelArrowsmith, Martin Arrowsmith and his male companion, Terry Wickett, loll in an ungainly boat in the middle of a Vermont lake. Wickett, a chemist, and Arrowsmith, a bacteriologist, have recently rejected the stifling luxury of the McGurk Institute of Biology in New York City in favor of a homemade laboratory and a rickety shanty far off in the woods. Removed from the constraints of urban institutions and urbane colleagues, they sit beneath the evening sky and discuss the progress of their studies of quinine derivatives. “ ‘I feel as if I...

  8. Epilogue: The Ends of Sacrifice
    (pp. 116-120)

    By maintaining self-sacrifice as heroic yet inverting the assumption of privileged civility that conditioned the rise of voluntary suffering, Lewis’sArrowsmithdisplays the fruition of late nineteenth-century sacrificial ideals. By the 1920s, the figure of the voluntarily suffering scientist was the subject of parodic exaggeration and even more overt critique. Popular articles with titles such as “Scientists at Play” and “The Fun of Being a Scientist” suggest that preoccupation with self-sacrifice had become as likely to be a source of amusement or embarrassment as of reverence and respect.¹ A survey of popular periodical literature through 1932 reveals a spike in...