Maria Rentetzi. Trafficking Materials and Gendered Experimental Practices: Radium Research in Early 20th-Century Vienna. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. xxiii + 279 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-13558-0.
Reviewed by Richard H. Beyler (Department of History, Portland State University)
Published on H-German (December, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
In this book, Maria Rentetzi attaches a fine-grained description of a very specific, historically unique time and place to broader themes in the history of science. The historically specific place is the Radium Institute in Vienna during the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. At its core, Trafficking Materials and Gendered Experimental Practices offers a detailed, multidimensional study of this one institution. The broader themes adumbrated in the title include the material and instrumental embodiments of science; the tacitly and explicitly gendered character of scientific work (along with all other kinds of work); geography and architecture as a formative structure for such work; and--of most interest to readers interested in German history--the political contexts of science. All of these themes have been at the forefront of attention among historians of science in recent years; the exciting and original feature of Rentetzi's work is the way that she seeks to bring all of these interpretive themes to bear, in combination, upon her subject. At times, the drawing of generic conclusions seems to race ahead of the specific evidence, but even here the book provides much food for comparative thought. In any event, the rich picture of the working life of a significant scientific center presented here remains a significant achievement.
The Radium Institute was founded in 1909 as an establishment of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, with Franz Exner as Vorstand and Stephan Meyer as the managing director. The institute soon became one of the world's leading centers of research into the then phenomenally striking phenomenon of radioactivity. Henri Becquerel first discovered natural radioactivity in uranium minerals in 1897; Marie and Pierre Curie discovered the hitherto unknown elements of polonium and radium the next year. From that point, excitement about this fascinating and revolutionary branch of science grew rapidly among physicists and chemists, but also beyond the physical sciences. Interest in its therapeutic applications, some authentic and some little more than quackery, spread throughout the medical field, and entrepreneurs sought to make quick money marketing the real or supposed virtues of radioactive substances. In this interdisciplinary context, substances such as radium soon became what Rentetzi, borrowing from anthropological theory, calls a "trafficking material"--an object shared and exchanged among disparate groups, sometimes with a symbolic significance that travels along but sometimes with meanings that vary with context.
In terms of physical and human geography, Vienna was in many respects ideally situated to launch a contribution into this new field, as Rentetzi demonstrates in chapters 2 to 4. In the early days of radioactivity studies, the world's main sources of uranium, polonium, and radium-bearing ores were the St. Joachimsthal mines in Bohemia, at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the context of human geography, Vienna had already established a reputation as one of Europe's leading medical centers, and the University of Vienna had a strong tradition in the natural sciences. Rentetzi analyzes in considerable detail the siting of the Radium Institute in the Medizinerviertel, where it enjoyed close relations both literally and figuratively with hospitals and other university institutes, as well as the architecture of the institute building itself. Rentetzi finds great significance in the ready circulation of personnel and materials enabled by the geographical proximity of institutes of different disciplines. This insight seems indubitably true; however, whether the Radium Institute was so unusual in this regard remains unexplored, given examples such as the concentration of Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes in Dahlem, the geographical and personal connections among the French Grandes Écoles, the academic atmosphere of American college towns, or teaching hospital complexes.
Likewise, Rentetzi is particularly interested in tracing the interdisciplinary networks--physics, chemistry, medicine--that made up the structure of the nascent "discipline" of "radioactivity." At historiographical stake is what constitutes a discipline, a question that she does not explicitly address. Classical scientific disciplines such as physics and chemistry were, by the turn of the century, big enough that they were in any event splitting into various specializations, and the formation of new fields in the disciplinary interstices--geophysics, physical astronomy, biochemistry, and so on--was proceeding apace. Nevertheless, Rentetzi cannot be faulted for failing to explore these developments outside the scope of her book; her message is, rather, the desirability and indeed the necessity of "trafficking" activity in the formation of this new field of study.
One evidently distinctive quality of the Viennese institute--certainly in the central European context--was what might be called its human geography. As several historians have previously noted, the new field of radioactivity studies was, relative to other natural sciences at the time, generally more open to participation by women. This openness was particularly evident at the Radium Institute. Rentetzi analyzes this phenomenon in some detail (chapter 3), and convincingly demonstrates that the women who worked there were not merely assistants or apprentices, as has been implied in some prior accounts, but rather active designers and practitioners of research who developed their own distinctive culture of laboratory practice. In the first instance this state of affairs was due to the talent and diligence of the women concerned: Stefanie Horovitz, Marietta Blau, Elisabeth Kara-Michaliova, Berta Karlik, Elisabeth Rona, and others. But Rentetzi sees the comparatively (though not universally) liberal atmosphere of Vienna as a necessary but not sufficient condition. Likewise instrumental was the supporting interest of key men in the institute's leadership: Sigmund Exner, Stefan Meyer, and Swedish physicist Hans Pettersson, who came to the institute in 1921 and initiated a vigorous experimental program in which many women were instrumental both as lead researchers and as students. An important implication of Rentetzi's account is that opportunity for women to work in science was institutionalized to such a slight extent that the good will (or alternatively, hostility) of specific individuals was determining.
The story is not one of unqualified success in either scientific or political terms. Rentetzi relates the story of a conflict over the practice of using observers (with dark-adapted eyes) to count flashes on a scintillation screen as a way of detecting subatomic radiation. This technique lay at the center of the Viennese institute's experimental culture; in some other centers of radioactivity research it came into disfavor. In particular, Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory, led by the preeminent nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford and distinguished colleagues such as James Chadwick, judged the scintillation technique too subjective and potentially inconsistent to be scientifically viable. The story is well known to experts in the history of nuclear physics, but Rentetzi tells it from a Viennese perspective that casts Rutherford's and Chadwick's behavior as insensitive at best and misogynistically bullying at worst. In any event, the Radium Institute came out the loser in this conflict in the views of the worldwide nuclear physics community, and Pettersson's career in the field was largely stymied as a consequence (he thereafter turned to oceanography). By presenting the story in this way, Rentetzi illuminates the importance of locally specific cultures of work, bound to particular institutions and personalities, even in the modern age of worldwide science.
The supportive or at least tolerant political atmosphere also came to an end in 1933. Women and Jews in academia (as in many other fields) faced renewed marginalization. Institute members who were National Socialist party members staged a kind of coup d'état against the institute's leadership. Under this new national and disciplinary regime, the case was particularly tragic for those scientists who were both. Blau, for example, essentially had her work on cosmic ray explosions--worthy of Nobel Prize consideration, in the view of some colleagues--appropriated by her junior collaborator, a Nazi Party member and the protégé (and romantic partner) of one of the other up-and-coming Nazi-affiliated scientists.
The volume has also appeared in electronic format through the Gutenberg-e program, which is jointly sponsored by Columbia University Press and the American Historical Association. The Web version also contains links to an abundance of fascinating illustrations. The text refers to some of these, which is somewhat disconcerting if one only has access to the print version. Presumably since one can do a keyword search in the online version, the print version lacks an index. An unfortunate problem is a considerable number of stylistic and mechanical errors. These little flaws include misspelled names, slightly inaccurate translations, or simple typographical errors. None of these glitches substantially affect the argument. They are something of an irritant, however. It seems a shame and a puzzle that a prize-winning book like this did not receive more careful editorial attention.
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Richard H. Beyler. Review of Rentetzi, Maria, Trafficking Materials and Gendered Experimental Practices: Radium Research in Early 20th-Century Vienna.
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