A review of A “Fantastical” Experiment: Motivations, Practice, and Conflict in the History of Nuclear Transplantation, 1925-1970, by Nathan Paul Crowe.
In the late 1990s, while I was completing an undergraduate degree in genetics, one of the older members of the faculty made a passing comment on the news that the cloning of Dolly might have been less successful than first thought. The only remarkable thing about the cloning of Dolly the sheep, he intimated, was how unremarkable a milestone the initial success had been and how expected the later discovery should have been, that using differentiated cells would result in developmental problems. Of course, people who find events unremarkable rarely have exciting things to say about them, but the comment stuck nonetheless. In his fascinating dissertation, Nathan Crowe unpacks the same historical insight without falling into the same trap of seeing nuclear transplantation as mundane. In a highly tooled-up analysis, Crowe shows us the historical roots of the technique (which are surprisingly long, stretching back to the 1920s), its institutional background, stabilization and diffusion and prompting of an ongoing debate about the place of cloning in society, not in the 1990s but in the 1960s. It is entirely to Crowe’s credit that despite the core message of the dissertation being the historical equivalent of a cold shower on the hype of this controversial technical feat, the narrative he constructs time and again relates the excitement felt by early nuclear transplanters.
Nathan Crowe begins by relocating nuclear transplantation in its original institutional context; that of growth-focused cancer research at the Lankenau Hospital Research Institute (LHRI) in Philadelphia. At the LHRI growth was the central focus of a multidisciplinary research program instantiated by Stanley P. Reimann (1891-1968) and Frederick S. Hammett (1885-1953). Recognizing these roots makes it obvious that the technique developed at the nexus of embryology and genetics, despite the ongoing territory wars being waged between these two disciplines. Chapter 2 ends with the first successful deployment of the technique in frog embryos by Robert W. Briggs (1911-1983) and Thomas J. King (1921-2000) in 1952, which they took to be evidence that the genome played a lesser role in directing development than some geneticists were claiming. In Chapter 3 we follow the diffusion of the technique to other research groups around the world. These research groups put the technique to use in their own non-growth centered research programs – Nathan Crowe’s reconstruction of the genealogy of this diffusion is one of several intellectually pleasing diversions the dissertation makes – but the real point of interest in this chapter is the work of John Gurdon (1933- ), joint-recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2012, at the University of Oxford. Gurdon developed the technique in the late-1950s and applied it to another species of frog (Xenopus laevis or “African clawed frog”). However in replicating Briggs and King’s work, Gurdon took his own results, although they were similar, to offer a radically, indeed diametrically opposed, contribution to the embryological and genetic views of development then in contention. Finally, Crowe looks to the stimulation of debate around the technique in the 1960s, initially by Joshua Lederberg (1925-1998) but latterly by a budding community of bioethicists. As biologists of Lederberg’s generation wrestled with the problems of the day – overpopulation and genetic degeneration – Lederberg saw in nuclear transplantation a means to stimulate wider debate, which would reach beyond the scientific community, on the role of science in shaping the future of humanity.
A “Fantastical” Experiment represents the best of tool-kit history of science. As such it intervenes in several historiographical discussions. This is, first and foremost, a history of technique, a close relative of the turn to material culture, although Nathan Crowe rightly insists on keeping theory firmly in sight. Just as scientists view techniques as lenses through which to understand the world, Crowe argues convincingly that historians of science can use the development of technique as a lens through which to understand the history of science. However, there is a great deal more on offer around this central framework. So, in the first chapter we find a contribution to institutional history which performatively demonstrates the benefits of paying attention to problem selection in any given institutional context. In the second and third chapters under-determination of theory choice is the guiding theme for discussions on Briggs and King’s and Gurdon’s alternative theoretical commitments as read through their divergent interpretations of essentially similar results. Where Briggs and King took the diminishing returns they achieved using more and more highly differentiated cells for transfer as evidence that the genome differentiated in development and might take a subsidiary role to cytoplasmic elements, Gurdon read from the same diminishing returns a continued genetic influence. Essentially the two groups were arguing over the level to which any success, even diminishing success, was significant. Crowe relates these alternative interpretations, and closes the interpretive loop, by grounding them in methodological differences between Briggs and King and Gurdon. This move, on Crowe’s part, is accomplished via another of the subsidiary gems of this thesis – along with his reconstruction of the genealogy of the technique’s diffusion – in a fascinating discussion of model organism choice. Not all frogs are the same and the differences between Rana and Xenopus, in terms of these organisms’ natural and unnatural histories, and their use by the two research groups, carries much of the interpretive weight that Crowe asks it to.
Finally, there is some fantastic craft at work here. Crowe’s prose is largely invisible, a sure sign that much hard work has gone into eliminating the distractions caused by a lack of polish. There is a regular pattern to each chapter with clear sign-posting and reiteration that draws the reader pleasingly through the narrative. The quality of Crowe’s presentation, breadth of analysis and the clarity of narrative on offer here mean this dissertation will have something to offer specialist and general audiences alike.
Griffith Law School
Fox Chase Cancer Center Records. Fox Chase Cancer Center Archives, Fox Chase, Pennsylvania (FCCC Archives)
Joshua Lederberg Papers. National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland (NLM)
National Institutes of Health General Records (RG 443). National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland (NIH Records, NARA)
Paul Weiss Papers. Rockefeller Archives Center, Sleepy Hollow, New York (RAC)
Rockefeller Foundation Archives. Rockefeller Archives Center, Sleepy Hollow, New York (RAC)
University of Minnesota. 2011. 264 pp. Primary Advisor: Mark Borrello.
Image: Northern Leopard Frog Rana pipiens on the South Saskatchewan River. Photograph by SriMesh, Wikimedia Commons and Xenopus laevis. Photograph by Michael Linnenbach, Wikimedia Commons. Composite by Leon Rocha.