JF Ptak Science Books Post 1258
Note 8 May 2014: There's a very interesting article recently published on Hooker's work ("Ex Utero: Live Human Fetal Research and the Films of Davenport Hooker", by Emily K. Wilson, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 2014, Volume 88, Issue 1, p. 132) which investigates his work in far greater depth. I'll share the conclusions section (page 160):
"Davenport Hooker’s human fetal activity research exemplifies how views of fetuses are grounded in shifting social, medical, and historical contexts. Hooker’s films, produced from 1932 to 1963, contributed substantially to newfound visual and biomedical conceptions of fetuses in the 1960s and 1970s as baby-like, autonomous human entities. But when viewed through the lens of this new fetal ideology by a 2010 web audience, that same filmed research violates acceptable or even tolerable treatment of fetuses. His methods, if modified in key respects formally established in the mid-1970s, could be legally and ethically acceptable, but are now incompatible with social perceptions of fetuses as young babies and of medical research as an essentially exploitive practice."
"Hooker and his colleagues did not, however, operate under an uncomplicated and unhumanized concept of fetuses. Hooker considered fetuses to be necessary live research materials and, at the same time, did not object to the performance of a religious rite normally reserved only for people. The 1930s public also held a nuanced view of fetuses, both as generally acceptable materials for nontherapeutic research and as developing humans with social value. Hooker recognized that discretion and respect toward fetuses were essential to continuing his studies, and that his methods, if presented less cautiously, could be objectionable to a broader American audience. Hooker’s project and the differing reactions to his work, both during and after the decades he conducted this research, demonstrate the changing, seemingly contradictory, context-dependent, and individually variable perspectives that have been held by scientists and the public toward fetuses and fetal experimentation, and the practical influence those views have had on biomedical research."
The question comes to us courtesy of Dr. Davenport Hooker’s A Preliminary Atlas of Early Human Fetal Activity, “published by the author” in 1939, a medical doctor and researcher at the Medical School of the University of Pittsburgh, and conducted under the auspices and funds of the American Philosophical Society. I can think of no other more disgusting atlas than this--not for the activites of the fetuses, but how they were made to be "active". .
The “this” that I’m talking about in the title of today's post is the way in which the fetuses pictured in this atlas of activity were made to be in motion: the fetuses experienced needle stimulations to theirl faces, and hands, and arms, and so on. Needles inserted, movie images made, experiments undertaken on the development of human fetal activity. 42 fetuses subjected to experimentation, physiological and morphological, poked with needles to determine how they would respond during the integral period of development of motility (from the 8th to 14th weeks, in regard to reflexes). The fetuses float in front of the camera unencumbered, and then the long and very pointed needle comes into view, finding its target, then a series of stills from the film made to show how the fetus moved in reaction to having been touched or abraised.
The subject fetuses were “derived from either hysterectomy or hysterotomy...undertaken in the interest of the health, sanity or life of the mother”. My understanding from another source (a verbal description from 15 years ago from a very well placed historian of the history of medicine) was that all of the subjects/mothers were African Americans. The author stated in the introduction that every precaution and due diligence was exerted in talking to the mothers about the “operation”–it is unclear to me whether or not “operation” was meant to include the experimentation afterwards, or not.
The experimentation occurred after the uterus was delivered, with the mother being given novocaine for the operation, a drug which had no effect on the movement and behavior of the fetus. The fetus at that point begins to asphyxiate, a process (here) that took “3.5 to 8 minutes”. It was during this period of dying that the fetuses were rubbed and pricked with the instrument to elicit “responses”.
There are lots of pictures of the stimulation to the face.
And also to the sole of the foot, the arm tendons, the hands, the thumb. And the mouth, which is just horrible.
I am drained from looking at this book. I’d reproduce the images if I didn’t think them so obscene, pornographic. It seems like filthy work to me, concentration camp experiments, Dachau work, Unit 731 work, though these were carried out at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School by a distinguished professor of anatomy. The results as published in this book are difficult to find: only seven university libraries worldwide seem to have it (copies at Yale, Brown, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and the National Library of Medicine), and I cannot find references to the work in medical databases.
*Addition: readers from boingboing.org have ointed out a Time magazine article from 1938 describing Dr. Hooker's experiments, though in these instances, with surviving aborted fetuses: "Dr. Davenport Hooker, professor of anatomy at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, knows that the grasping reflex originates in the embryo long before birth. He has an understanding with a Pittsburgh hospital, which notifies him whenever it has on hand a living abortus so that Dr. Hooker can rush to the scene with his photographer, make pictures and experiments before the fetus expires".*
I do not know much more to be able to contribute on the history of human fetal experimentation. I’ve not thought about it much, and I don’t want to. In the history of human experimentation in general (an interesting chronology is given at this website), the fetal experiments seem to be unique. There are hundreds of other instances of experiments on humans, some completely revolting and conducted on prisoners (as in the Dachau and Unit 731 cases, and many dozens of issues of American prisoners being infected with diseases like malaria as in the Chicago case of 1940); or performed on the poor and uninformed (as in Tuskegee), or by the simple withholding of information from a group of people (in the Pellagra case from the 1940's), and on and on.
In the year before this book Dr. Hooker published THE ORIGIN OF THE GRASPING MOVEMENT IN MAN, the abstract stating:
“Evidence is presented indicating that the grasping reflex first appears as a partial finger flexion, in which the thumb is not involved, at about the 1lth week of menstrual age in human fetuses. Finger flexion becomes quite complete by 13 to 14 weeks. Gripping an object appears about the 18th week. Though the thumb may be feebly motile as early as 12 weeks, in response to palmar tactile stimulation, it rarely responds with regularity before the 15th week, and does not play any role in the grasp by 25 weeks, the terminal age of these observations. Further observation may alter somewhat the age levels at which these characteristic responses appear. Furthermore, the conditions under which the observations are made, involving slow, progressive asphyxia, necessitate care in generalization.”
“INTRODUCTION THE postnatal development of the grasping reflex has been studied in detail. Though evidence is available which indi-cates that this reflex has a prenatal origin, no systemic study of it is present in the literature. Indeed, the observations of prenatal grasping so far recorded are both few and scattered, limited largely to the classic observations of Minkowski (1920 et seq.) and to the report of Bolaffio and Artom (1924). Minkowski (1928) states that stroking the palm frequently caused flexion of the fingers, and flexion, abduction and, sometimes, opposition of the thumb. This resulted in a definite grasping reflex, in which the hand closed into a fist, at times. Such a reflex he observed in a fetus of 65 mm. total length...”
I wonder if these reflexes are being studied in the same manner as those in the fetal activity atlas?
The old library catalog card places the work in the "human embryology" subject area--it really isn't anything of the sort.