Page URL:

Book Review: Tissue Culture in Science and Society - The Public Life of a Biological Technique in Twentieth Century Britain

28 August 2012
By Dr Joan Haran
Research fellow, Cesagen, Cardiff University
Appeared in BioNews 670

Tissue Culture in Science and Society: The Public Life of a Biological Technique in 20th Century Britain

By Dr Duncan Wilson

Published by Palgrave Macmillan

ISBN-10: 0230284272, ISBN-13: 978-0230284272

Buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA

'Tissue Culture in Science and Society: The Public Life of a Biological Technique in 20th Century Britain' by Dr Duncan Wilson

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.

Buy Human Cloning in the Media: From Science Fiction to Science Practice from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

1 September 2014 - by James Storm 
Surrounding yourself with books and journal articles on human enhancement will see you encounter the word 'eugenics' on a regular basis. The unfortunate thing about this word is that it has become bound to a particularly nasty piece of world history - and for many people this association is a reason to wince, whilst rejecting whichever idea or theory it is trying to re-associate itself with today....
3 September 2012 - by Suzanne Elvidge 
While it's not designed to be something that is read from cover to cover, this textbook is clearly and well written, readable and accessible, with regular call-out boxes providing examples and case studies...
17 January 2011 - by Rose Palmer 
This is an extraordinary book about a woman who died on 4 October 1951, but whose legacy will continue exponentially. Henrietta Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer who died, aged only 31, in the 'coloured ward' of John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore....
22 March 2010 - by Dr Marianne Kennedy 
My first impression of this book was that the title smacks of a dull read. On the contrary, however, this book provides a stimulating awakening into one of the challenges facing science writing today, namely the use of metaphor: its purpose in communication and consequences for science and public understanding...
21 September 2009 - by MacKenna Roberts 
As the curtain dropped on the closing night performance of the London-based PIT Theatre Cooperative's world premiere production performed throughout August at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival, so too ended the rare opportunity to witness a science communication creative, if not comical, success (of which I hope we see more). The PIT Collective's topical comedy entitled A Stroke of Genius bravely and uniquely informed its audience as its light-hearted plot turned on broad-sweeping bioethi...
10 March 2008 - by Ailsa Stevens 
Scientists in Newcastle can now produce early stage human sperm cells from stem cells in the laboratory. This research is important for furthering our understanding of human development. If human eggs could be produced using similar methods in future, then this could potentially allow babies to be created without the...
to add a Comment.

By posting a comment you agree to abide by the BioNews terms and conditions

Syndicate this story - click here to enquire about using this story.