Why historians need to take scientific fieldwork more seriously

Much important scientific research takes place outside laboratories. The history of science can only be enriched, argues Vanessa Heggie, if we give equal attention to other sites

October 10, 2019
Body experiment
Source: Getty
Scientists test the effects of cold on the human body at the Defence Research Board’s northern laboratories in Fort Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, 1954

If you do an image search for the word “scientist”, the results are extraordinarily standardised. Not only are most of the scientists themselves white and male, but they will also be in white coats, at a laboratory bench, looking down a microscope or peering at some glassware.

There have been important efforts to diversify the images of scientists. Yet it’s equally vital that we diversify our images of scientific activity. And we simply cannot understand how science operates if academic studies continue to ignore the vast amounts of work done away from the lab bench.

When I was researching my first book, A History of British Sports Medicine (2011), I was surprised to find almost no scholarship on the history of 20th-century physiology. Part of the motivation for my new book, Higher and Colder: A History of Extreme Physiology and Exploration, was a desire to fill in some of the gaps.

Vanessa Heggie in the field
Ben Allen (2014)

Physiology was neglected for two related reasons: it was often a field-based, non-laboratory form of science – and it was not genetics or molecular biology.

The story of the 20th-century life sciences is dominated by the molecular revolution and genetics, and by an overall narrative – at least in our introductory undergraduate classes – that emphasises experimental “big science”. Although historians have argued that there was not really a scientific revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries, the rise and eventual dominance of experimental practice is a canonical part of the history of modern Western science. It is this form of science that is described as having displaced older methods of knowledge creation, such as learning from the writings of the “ancients” or the kinds of data collection and analysis once known as “natural history”.

Because this shift to experiment happened first in the physical and chemical sciences, and only later in biology and medicine, biologists seem to have experienced a kind of “physics envy” in the early 20th century. Pioneering biomedical researchers adopted chemical and physical methods, and physicists and chemists were recruited into biomedical research programmes, most notably those in molecular biology and genetics.

These two disciplines have dominated our understanding of contemporary biomedicine, not just in research and history but also in teaching. Duncan Wilson and Gael Lancelot have demonstrated, for example, how molecular biology methods and approaches took over at the University of Manchester in the 1980s and 1990s, where appeals to “excellence” were used to confirm the priority and status of genetics and molecular biology (as opposed to disciplines such as botany or ecology) in both research and teaching. I am sure similar patterns could be seen at other UK universities (and elsewhere in the West), but I can confirm this particular change from personal experience. As a genetics student in the mid- to late 1990s, it was very clear that “our” discipline had priority – in terms of new buildings, opportunities and hires – over environmental science and any of the other disciplines based as much in the field as in the laboratory.

Pioneering British climber Nea Morin teaches a safety knot

Historians respond to changing fashions in science, and consequently the discipline of environmental history, and with it the history of environmental science, has boomed in the early 21st century. But although there have been several important studies of fieldwork in biology, the effect of these was to present the laboratory and the field as opposing workspaces, and to echo the assumption that the field was somehow subservient or inferior. We often find stories about how field scientists struggled to have their work taken seriously as science.

My own view, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is that historians of science need to start studying field science as an activity in its own right, not just in contrast to laboratory science. Historians of medicine in particular need to redress the serious imbalance between our large literature on laboratory work and the extremely small number of studies of modern medical fieldwork.

Highlighting the topic of “extreme physiology” – that is, the study of the human body in particularly challenging environments – might seem like a strange way of demonstrating the importance of fieldwork. It takes place in extraordinary places: Everest, Antarctica, even outer space. Yet even this exotic form of field science has been crucial in scientific discoveries and has probably had an impact on the lives of everyone reading this article. If you check the weather forecast before going out in the morning, note that “wind chill” was developed as a concept in the context of Antarctic exploration and physiology. Most of our outdoor gear, tents, dried adventure food and hiking boots owe at least part of their design to experiences on Everest and elsewhere. Our understanding of fetal biology, and with it our ability to save premature babies, owes something to high-altitude research in the early 20th century. And current research on Everest seeks to improve care for patients in intensive care units. In its study of the relationship between the human body, human health and the environment, extreme physiology was also one of the first disciplines to begin to worry about the effects of climate change on global populations.

So there is much to be said about extreme physiology in terms of the knowledge it has generated. But here I want to argue that looking at what might seem a limited or obscure form of science can tell us as much about the reality of scientific work as studies of the clichéd laboratory. We can see this in four key areas.

The first point is that many of the apparent problems of field sites are also problems encountered in the laboratory. The idealised laboratory is supposed to be a site of control – control of the environment within the laboratory to exclude any confounding factors, but also control of who has access to the space, and who has the authority to make claims. The study of extreme physiology shows that real-world laboratories are somewhat messier working spaces. Instead of a mountain, an experimenter might use a barometric chamber; instead of the Antarctic, a climate chamber. But these “controlled” spaces often turned out to be very imperfect models of the real world and vulnerable to experimental error. (In a 1985 experiment known as “Operation Everest II”, for example, researchers entered the chamber using oxygen-breathing equipment to test subjects exposed to low barometric pressures, only to find that their breathing systems had leaked, thereby affecting the oxygen pressure in the chamber and threatening the validity of their measurements.)

While the flow of data and authority in modern science is assumed to go from “wild” data collection in the field to modelling, replication and experiment in the laboratory, extreme physiology reverses that process, with tests in the field often disproving laboratory findings. Laboratory work was often presented as a preliminary activity that had to be ratified and proved true out in the real world of the mountain or the trek to a pole.

Second, extreme physiology is a field that clearly reveals the challenges women have faced in science. Prompted by the #MeToo movement, women have been discussing the challenges of fieldwork, revealing assaults, harassment and overt sexism in all fields from archaeology to zoology. Extreme physiology relied on the support, and the bodies, of explorers, heavily gendered as male throughout the 20th century. The spaces of extreme physiology research were often difficult or dangerous to get to, requiring extensive and expensive travel, and support with issues such as visas and border crossings. This meant that it was relatively easy to exclude women, and history is littered with women’s unsuccessful applications to go on expeditions.

Medicine chest used on Everest
Wellcome Collection

Even when they did go, their work was often erased from the record. For example, one British expedition in 1959 took electrocardiogram readings from local people and expedition members, including the pioneering British climber Nea Morin. Her name is not mentioned in any of the scientific reporting from this expedition, not even in the acknowledgements, yet her autobiography reveals her role as a research assistant to the team doctor running the ECG studies. Meanwhile, the US banned women from its bases in Antarctica for most of the 1950s and 1960s and its navy refused to transport women of other nationalities to the continent, while a powerful old boys’ network excluded women from British bases.

Third, focusing on extreme physiology throws into relief the importance of everyday technology, which in other circumstances could easily be overlooked. Historians of science have periodically paid attention to people such as technologists, engineers, computer programmers, animal breeders and glassworkers to show how significant such professions are to the changing ideas and practices of science. In extreme physiology, the vital importance of everything from the design of tents to the content of ration packs is starkly illustrated by expeditions where equipment failure could mean death.

We can also see some of the racialised assumptions of both exploration and science. In 1971, the International Himalayan Expedition organisers were frustrated that their oxygen masks did not fit comfortably on the Sherpa porters involved in the expedition – the team had selected the “Oriental” mask made by the US air force, based on Vietnamese fighters, and had assumed this would somehow suit the facial features of Nepalese people too. Even fifty years after Sherpa porters were first recommended as better than Alpine guides by a British doctor, Western expeditions still did not routinely carry technical equipment designed for their bodies.

The fourth and final point is that the scientists involved in extreme physiology moved between the different spaces of science – field sites, field laboratories and traditional laboratories – without worrying too much about the “status” of any of them. While they were often world experts in specific topics and methodologies, they also worked in interdisciplinary teams, used mixed methods and explored their specialism through a range of tools and workspaces. Here they were very much exemplary of contemporary scientific research, in both the public and private spheres, where funding increasingly encourages large, multidisciplinary, team-based projects.

There is one final hidden truth revealed by field science: a lot of scientific work is boring and repetitive. Whether it is hours of pipetting tiny aliquots of liquid (one of the reasons I left the discipline of genetics) or struggling to fill in sleep record cards while wearing thick gloves in the Antarctic desert, many of the essential tasks are physically challenging, tiring or numbingly routine. Although being in the Arctic or halfway up Everest might add a little heroic glamour to the activity, physiologists in these places found themselves overwhelmed by paperwork and disappointed in their food, much like a laboratory scientist with a dull university canteen.

As scientists begin to shift the stereotypes and recognise the huge range of people and activities that constitute science, historians need to find ways to reflect that diversity. Field science has brought us huge benefits in the past and will undoubtedly continue to do so. Neglecting it means neglecting a central element of the scientific enterprise.

Vanessa Heggie is lecturer in the history of medicine and science at the University of Birmingham. Her latest book, Higher and Cooler: A History of Extreme Physiology and Medicine was recently published by the University of Chicago Press.


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Reader's comments (1)

"...only to find their breathing systems had leaked..." I don't think that particular high altitude lab qualifies as a "controlled environment" laboratory. One hopes they fixed the leak before publishing.


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