Sponsors: Institute for the History of Medicine, Berlin (Volker Hess/Anja Laukötter) and the Institut de Recherche Interdisciplinaire sur les Sciences et la Technologie (IRIST), University of Strasbourg (Christian Bonah)
Date: 22-24 May 2008
Deadline: 30 September 2007
Human experimentation is often associated with massive violations of human rights and dignity and usually figures as an example of medical inhumanity. It is often swung as a stick with which to beat Western medicine. Consequently, the history of human experimentation is usually written as a sequence of ethical transgressions, as a genealogy from syphilis inoculations, tuberculosis experiments, and concentration camp trials in Dachau and Auschwitz to third-world pharmaceutical trials. But focusing on such dark milestones of medical inhumanity obscures the fact that humans are fundamentally the epistemological ‘objects’ of the human sciences and that often the ‘objects’ in question – patients and relatives – are among the advocates and supporters of the experiments.
It is therefore clear that, in the wake of the laboratory revolution, humans became the ‘object’ of experimental practices and scientific testing procedures. Yet current debates rarely take this into account. Instead, especially in accounts that focus on ethical questions, one attempts to differentiate normatively between morally acceptable and unacceptable human experiments. This distinction ignores the roots of its own origins and is challenged by the pracitcal experience.
The aim of the conference is not to dissolve this distinction, anchored as it is in codes and professional structures. Irrespective of its pragmatic significance, we believe that human experimentation – given it’s constitutive role in the contemporary life sciences – must be the subject of greater historical and epistemological reflection. We wish to break open the rigid distinction between ‘human experiment’ and ‘therapeutic trial’ by analyzing case studies of the different ways of experimenting on humans (including the different techniques of manipulation and representation, such as texts, statistics, pictures, film, etc.). To this day, these different approaches comprise self-evident elements of the methodological repertoire of medical science, but they and their epistemological functions are often ignored.
The pharmaceutical trial has always been a prominent example. The development of every new medication must, at some crucial point, proceed to human trials. Such trials are akin to classical, open-ended experiments. Ensconcing them in regulatory guidelines as so-called phase 1 trials reinforces their tight affiliation with phase 2 and 3 ‘therapeutic trials’. Recent developments in drug regulation – especially fast-track procedures – also suggest that post-marketing evaluation has experimental status, as a kind of clinical trial on a demographic scale and a phase 4 in the sequence of data collection.
Inoculation trials are another example. Their similarity with pharmaceutical trials is superficial. This is especially true for prophylactic inoculations, which do not involve a ‘therapeutic trial’ because they only preempt the possibility of an illness and so only rarely help the patient. In fact, prophylactic inoculations are grand experiments on healthy individuals; they are directed at the epidemiological risks to the population, not at the well-being of the individual.
Self-experimentation is another example with a considerable historical pedigree. It represents the basic, epistemic configuration of human experimentation in which the observing subject is at once also it’s own scientific object. We are interested not so much in exploring the heroism of the self-experiment, but rather the methodological challenges it poses.
The focus of the conference will be on the period from 1850 to 1980. Our aim is to explore the historical dimensions of the human experiment, its continuities, transformations, and social conditions. Papers should therefore take the form of case studies of the different kinds of human experiments. Furthermore, we are seeking contributions that deal with specific aspects of the experimental setting, including such questions as:
- How was the difference between an experiment and a trial defined and by whom?
- What is the status of informed consent in the experiment?
- What kind of history of the acceptance of human trials can be written?
- What is the relationship between discourse and practice in human experimentation?
Papers should be directed to an international audience. The conference languages will be German and English.
Prospective participants are asked to please submit an abstract of no more than 400 words by 30 September 2007 to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Volker Hess, Prof. Dr.
Institute of the History of Medicine (Director)
Center for Humanities and Health Sciences, Charité
Ziegelstrasse 5-9, 10117 Berlin (center / CCM)
Klingsorstrasse 119, 12203 Berlin (south / CBF)
fon: xx49-30-450 5290 31 (office CCM)
xx49-30-830092 30 (office CBF)
fax: xx49-30-450 5299 01
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