Science X Medicine

MEMBERS: José R. Bertomeu, Mónica García, Ximo Guillem, Stefan Pohl, Josep Simon, Ana Carolina Vimieiro

‘Science’ and ‘Medicine’ are two objects of study characterized by great complexity and covering a large territory. But historians have traditionally considered that their boundaries could be clearly defined, at least with regard to each other. This distinction, is still conventional: the making of ‘modern medicine’ would have been attained through the introduction in the nineteenth century of laboratory science in medical practice. ‘Science’ applied to ‘medicine’, characterized instead by clinical practices, and thus subordinated to the former. A more symmetrical image of the science/medicine nexus is currently being prompted by the study of contemporary developments such as biomedicine. Yet, this growing scholarship has not reshaped the basic science/medicine framework. The question is complex, since historical actors themselves have often built their own scientific or medical identities, in opposition to each other. However, it is increasingly visible that these two areas are far more promiscuous than conventionally held. They can in fact be characterized by a large number of entangled problems, mediating instruments and shared spaces. This research group is connected to recent calls to overcome the aforementioned opposition (Warner 1985 & 1995; Pickstone, 2000; Sturdy, 2011; Pickstone & Worboys, 2011). A major aim is to bring together different approaches used in the study of science or medicine to understand a series of situations involving promiscuity and entanglement in scientific and medical practices. Some guiding questions are: What is the role of technology in the making of scientific disciplines and medical specialisms? What is the role of quantification in creating scientific and medical objects of inquiry? How have physics, chemistry, engineering, and medicine shaped each other? How were perceived the different standards of proof in medicine and in the physical sciences? What were the major spaces of exchange and trading zones between science and medicine? This research project includes case studies dealing with objects and problems across science and medicine in national and transnational contexts between the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of these are:

José R. Bertomeu Sánchez (Universitat de València, Spain)
Focusing on nineteenth-century French toxicology, José Ramón’s work discusses how different methods coming from chemistry and medicine were employed in forensic practice. He analyzes the contested status of medical chemistry at the beginning of the nineteenth-century and how chemical tests gained room in courtrooms and turned out to be perceived as the most reliable source of evidence in poisoning trials (undermining the role played by clinical data and autopsies). But this situation was never universally accepted and many expert controversies were fueled by contrasting views concerning the different sources of toxicological evidence. Following these controversies, he also analyzes the flow of information, objects and practices between academies, laboratories and courtrooms.

Mónica García (Universidad del Rosario, Colombia)
Mónica investigates how bacteriology and statistics shaped medical and epidemiological research in Colombia in the first half of the twentieth century. During the nineteenth century doctors and hygienists had dealt with individual and population health primarily on the basis of clinical and medico-geographical frameworks. These traditions were instrumental in their emphasis on the geographical determination of pathologies and even on the uniqueness of locally produced knowledge. However, in the first half of the twentieth century doctors showed an increasing interest in translating these local concerns and knowledge into the global standards of epidemiological research, vital statistics and international classifications of disease. Mónica’s work analyses the challenges and controversies that the new laboratory and statistical styles and techniques posed to Colombian doctors and hygienists; how physicians forged new objects of inquiry and intervention after the newer laboratory and statistical language at both, the individual and population level; and, finally, how doctors re-framed their place within what they called the “universal” science.

Ximo Guillem (Universitat de València, Spain)
During the late-nineteenth and the early-twentieth centuries spraying and fumigation practices were increasingly introduced in urban and rural sites in order to control pests. These practices were promoted, as well as contested, in discussions and reports by engineers, pharmacists and medical doctors. Ximo’s work analyses the development of these pesticide treatments and deals with the ways in which they were problematized at the turn of the century in England and Spain. He considers thus the interaction between medical and scientific experts, as among these and external social agents, in defining occupational and environmental health standards.

Marta Macedo
Marta Macedo’s postdoctoral research deals with the relation between science, agriculture and colonial landscapes in the twentieth century. By following cocoa, from the field to the industrial space, she studies the way planters, experts, workers, trees, machines, and laboratories built different ecologies in São Tomé and Ghana. Using approaches from the history of science, history of technology, history of medicine and environmental history, she aims at understanding how specific scientific systems are set in place and their role in sustaining Portuguese and British colonial power and its narratives. Alongside with cocoa plants, Marta is also interested in the labor politics and the racial relations that sustained cocoa farming. Medical expertise necessary to create efficient working bodies is an essential part of her broader work. She aims at showing how doctors adapted the agronomic practices of record keeping to humans, used quantification instruments as medical tools, and managed workers diets, housing and sanitation as an important part of their colonial work.

Stefan Pohl (Universidad del Rosario, Colombia)
Traditionally, the modern notion of race has been related to scientific theories regarding climatic determinism, physical anthropology, Darwinism, heredity and genetics. Focusing on early twentieth century debates about Colombian “race degeneration”, Stefan’s work explores the assemblage of heterogeneous knowledge, practices and instruments that gave scientific status to these discourses. Besides the theories already mentioned, his work stresses that nutrition, an entangled object of scientific inquiry –mediated by thermodynamics, political economy, medical physics, laboratory physiology and statistics– gave shape to a new human body conceptualization that allowed to regenerate their racial deficiencies through adequate nourishment. The laboratory and quantification practices and instruments involved in this process will be explored, as well as the institutions that were created for this social engineering.

Josep Simon (Cinvestav, Mexico)
Medicine and physics have a long history of reciprocal interactions, but it was in the nineteenth century when ‘medical physics’ was established as an academic discipline. The disciplinary narrative of ‘medical physics’ is a succession of innovative efforts around instrumental design and experimental practices, technological milestones marking notable applications of physics in medicine (electrical therapies, X-rays, radiotherapy, nuclear medicine, technologies of diagnostic imaging, etc.). As a history of invention, this historiographical narrative is embedded on an implicit centre-periphery and traditionally Eurocentric model which focuses on French, British and German case studies (and 20th century USA). Josep’s work aims to contribute to the understanding of the making of ‘medical physics’ as a discipline through a more sophisticated historiographical narrative. It also aims to introduce a more accurate balance in dealing not only with the role of physics in medicine, but also of medicine in physics. Moreover, it intends to decentre the international picture of ‘medical physics’ by presenting both Latin American and European case studies (19th-20th centuries), and by analyzing the role of knowledge circulation (in the form of instruments, books, and practitioners) between Latin America and Europe.

Ana Carolina Vimieiro Gomes (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, Brasil)
Ana Carolina devoted her PhD thesis to the study of the emergence of physiology in Brazil in the late 19th century. The tensions between clinical and laboratory practices appeared as a main issue in her analysis. She is the author of a paper on this topic soon to appear in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine (summer 2012). In her current research she is investigating the development of constitutional medicine in Brazil between 1930 and 1950, what was called then in countries such as Brazil (and also in Italy and France) by the name of biotypology. The use of this term itself and the scientific practices proposed in this field denotes the attempts of Brazilian biotypologists to give some scientific status to their clinical practices (propaedeutics) and to the theoretical foundations they used to classify bodies. Some physicians mobilized scientific arguments of bodily quantification and statistics but, at the same time, constitutional medicine (or biotypology) was presented as a way to overcome the reductionist approaches of some laboratory practices which focused mainly on illness and not on individuals. The focus on the individual allows to discuss which scientific concepts were assembled by physicians acquainted with biotypology to characterize the individual in biological terms.


* History of nutrition and medical statistics in Colombia. Perspectives from the interaction between science and medicine. (Project funded by Universidad del Rosario, Colombia, 2013-2014). Coord. by Mónica García & Stefan Pohl, with the participation of Josep Simon.

* Comparative study on the history of physiology in Latin America. (Project funded by Universidad del Rosario, Colombia, 2013-2014). Coord. Stefan Pohl.


* Conference panel Rethinking Instruments and Measure: Entangled Objects across Practices and Geographies, 8th STEP meeting, Corfu (Greece), 21-24 June, 2012

* Symposium Science X Medicine: Promiscuous Objects, Entangled Problems, 24th ICHSTM, Manchester (UK), 22-28 July 2013