Book Review: Tissue Culture in Science and Society - The Public Life of a Biological Technique in Twentieth Century Britain
28 August 2012
Research fellow, Cesagen, Cardiff UniversityAppeared in BioNews 670
Tissue Culture in Science and Society: The Public Life of a Biological Technique in 20th Century Britain
Published by Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN-10: 0230284272, ISBN-13: 978-0230284272
Duncan Wilson begins 'Tissue Culture in Science and Society: The Public Life of a Biological Technique in Twentieth Century Britain', by expressing hope that highlighting the historical interactions between the scientific and social worlds of tissue culture will provide current debates with some much needed balance and perspective. In this, he succeeds admirably, effectively demonstrating that popular representations and scientific practices are mutually influential. Commentators would do well to bear this in mind when they make simplistic claims about the effects - positive or negative - of science communication.
Wilson's account of the vexed relationship that Honor Fell, director of the Strangeways Research Laboratory, from 1927-70, had with science popularisation is a case in point. Quoting from private correspondence dating from 1934, Wilson notes Fell's enthusiasm for 'getting ideas into the public's skull' - as pithy a shorthand for the much-maligned deficit model as could be imagined - through lectures to the public and to schoolchildren and including a BBC radio talk on 'The Life of a Cell'.
However, in correspondence from the following year she 'took a dim view of the popularising activities she once endorsed and cautioned against sensational portrayals of tissue culture', which Wilson suggests is because she felt stung by allegations in the national press that she was 'about to grow babies in bottles'. Wilson points out, however, that the original link between tissue culture and 'test-tube babies' was made in 1926 by Thomas Strangeways, founder of the Research Laboratory. This particular episode forms part of a pattern of interaction that Wilson outlines in much greater detail in which researchers from Strangeways engaged in popularisation of the work of tissue culture, predicting its future benefits in ways that resonate with the hope and hype cycles associated with embryonic stem cell research and regenerative medicine.
The first of five chapters - variously dovetailed and overlapping - focuses on the emergence of tissue culture's high profile, its particular association with the Strangeways Research Laboratory and the sophisticated communication strategies of Thomas Strangeways and his colleagues. It draws on contemporary scientific papers to provide an overview of tissue culture's experimental practice, and to trace the impact of funding on research and the circulation of ideas about tissue culture through a range of media outlets.
Such ideas evoked ambivalent responses from interwar commentators and some newspaper and fictional accounts portrayed tissue culture as a dangerous technique; anxieties that can be easily compared to those expressed in relation to genetic engineering and nanotechnology.
In his discussion of the cultivation of whole organs and embryos in the lab, Wilson once again highlights the role of popularisation of science and expert speculation in guiding the terms of debate. Some nicely chosen illustrations from science fiction pulp magazines demonstrate the rapid take-up of such ideas, as well as their sceptical exploration. As he concludes: 'Far from being the product of a sensationalist or misinformed tabloid mindset opposed to scientific perspectives, test-tube babies were a product of a scientific engagement with broader debates on eugenics, mass-production and birth control'.
The chapter 'Converting Human Material into Tissue Culture' disrupts a historical assumptions about bioethics noting that, after 1945, newspaper journalists portrayed tissue culture in a positive light because of the use of human tissues in the fight against disease and expressed no anxiety about culturing them outside the body.
In fact, Wilson emphasises that tissues were 'readily exchanged' between scientists 'without any thought for patient consent or ownership, because their collection and use in research was widely viewed as unproblematic'. He suggests that the pertinent question to ask is how issues of consent and property in relation to human tissue have come to prominence in recent decades.
It is in the final chapter that Wilson explains how the scientific collection of tissue for research became such a contentious issue, suggesting that factors such as the 'pro-life opposition to the recent liberalization of abortion laws' and the emergence of the bioethics profession played a major part. However he resists any simplistic drawing of battle lines, adding that when projections of 'public opinion' of these issues were investigated empirically the findings varied both in relation to the way the questions were framed, and in their presentation by the proponents of different regulatory systems.
Wilson's final chapter, which brings up the concept of bio-art, allows him to take issue with the claims made of the extreme novelty of the debates such projects enter into and open up – having already effectively demonstrated that 'tissue cultures were culturally visible objects long before the era of tissue engineering and bio-art'.
This is a highly readable and thorough cultural history, which draws on a wide range of primary sources across an extended historical period.
Overall, Wilson's lively discussion takes issue with the belief that 'scientists and the public have always been at loggerheads over research on tissues' and urges us to focus instead on the dialogue that has been engendered.