Completed research projects

Foreign substances. A history of the risk policy of precarious substances and the genesis of the critical consumer of the 50s and 60s.

Editor: Dr. Heiko Stoff
(Project duration: 1.10.2008-30.9.2010)

The aim of this project is to analyse the interrelations that connect the history of precarious substances to the constitution of the critical consumer between 1950 and 1970. Food additives have been used on a larger scale since the late 19th century to produce longer-lasting and more attractive foodstuffs. Within this project, preservatives and foreign substances are described as precarious substances, because their proven effectiveness in the production process seems bound to their autonomous ability for carcinogenic and toxic effects. Food chemistry is concerned with producing, activating and regulating such precarious substances. Groceries are also the medium of a biopolitically-optimised access to the human body. They are, therefor, embedded in a discourse over natural and artificial substances, pure and impure nourishment and vital und foreign substances. The purpose of the research is to examine risk policy in the 50s and 60s within the "purity discourse" and the industrial production of precarious substances. This will be surveyed by using comprehensive sources for an international comparison between the USA and the EEC. Of particular interest is the connection between the negotiation of the 1958 food law by the stakeholders of the state, industry and science (DFG-senate commission) with food and hygiene goal-setting and the constitution of a critical consumer, simultaneously addressed and excluded by this group of experts.

The records of the DFG commission offer a detailed base of sources on the history of food additives in the 50s and 60s. The role of the commission as a facilitator between different interests and discourses and as a catalyst of the precarisation of foreign substances is very important for the purposes of this research. The constitution of a taxonomy of precarious substances is a significant part of the research and is carried out by using sources provided by the WHO and the DFG-commission. This is supposed to establish a risk policy of precarious substances by eventually describing foreign substances as invariably merely acceptable. The aim of the project is to survey the altered policy of risk management, solidified by the food law of 1958, by examining dealings with precarious substances, such as the preservative thiourea manufactured by Degussa for citrus fruit before the amendment, the fish preservative hexamethylenetetramine during the amendment and "Baycovin" (beverage disinfection), a Bayer product, after the amendment.


Editor: Dr. Alexander von Schwerin
(project duration: 1.7.2009-30.6.2011)

The planned research investigates the relationship between the history of biological things and the development of biopolitics encompassing the totality of vital processes. Mutagens, the subject of this research, are simultaneously desired and reviled substances. They are "the stuff of transformation," but also "genetic poisons." Their transformative capacity made mutagens desirable research instruments within genetics and the emerging molecular biology. Since the 1960s, however, mutagens have defined an interdisciplinary problem area of risk policy, in order to regulate substances such as radioactive particles and the increasing technological agents, such as pharmaceuticals, pesticides and DDT. With their precarious status between efficiency and (restricted) autonomy, mutagens, at the meeting point of research, consumption and risk policy, assumed a crucial intermediate function between different discourses and practices. In comparison with the USA and international research, the role of mutagens as material connection point between bioscience laboratory research and the alterations in risk policy in the 60s and 70s in Germany needs to be investigated on the basis of more extensive research literature and archival sources. This study, therefore, connects perspectives from the history of science with historiographical research on the conditions of social change in the period covered.

--The Environmental Turn-- Research interests focus firstly on the start of environmental policy and thereby the process, through which, already in the sixties, an expansion of risk policy took place -beyond the problematizing of substances in closed circuits of production and consumption (see project on foreign substances)- to include technological and industrial environmental dangers. The institutional history of science-based risk policy (DFG commissions, WHO) ought to be fundamentally extended through investigation into the practice of research, which is one of main points of this study. To that end, the interplay of the institutions of risk policy, those performing research on risk and molecular/biology laboratories will be investigated.
--From DNA Repair towards the Active Self-- The risk policy of mutagens formed the context for the genesis of a revolutionary model of regulation in molecular biology that can be linked to DNA repair mechanisms and their diffusion in the seventies. In addition to the influence of DNA repair on the revision of pharmaceutical and radiation regulation, we will also research to what extend this model influenced in the seventies the domination of a political regulation strategy based on risk factors, with the transformation of biopolitics at its core. Hence, mutations might tell us something about changes in the conception of the biological organism and the Homo oeconomicus of the neoliberal turn starting in the 1970s.

Precarious matters in the experimental life sciences in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Working group: Prof. Dr. Bettina Wahrig, Dr. Alexander von Schwerin, Dr. Heiko Stoff, Viola Balz

The goal of this historiographical project is the development of a genealogy of precarious matters. This means substances that have an effect on the living body, but also constitute the organism as 'functional' or 'disordered'. From an epistemological perspective, these substances are grouped together as precarious matters and their role in the experimental life sciences of the 19th and 20th century, their materialisation, standardisation, isolation, activation, production and distribution are investigated. Particular interest applies to the on-going historical process through which these materials are made not only the objects of experiment or technological implementation, but first and foremost are made substantial. This involves the historical process of reification. Poisons, biological agents (vitamins, hormones, enzymes), psychiatric drugs and radioactive isotopes are such materials and they constitute the point of departure of this project.

Experimentalisation and international communication: the case of the Curare

Main researcher: Silvia Micheletti

Already from the first meetings of the European travellers with the south American people, the interest in the arrow poison curare was especially strong. From the middle of the 18th century, samples of curare were brought to Europe and chemists, pharmacists, doctors and physiologists started analysing them and experimenting with them. A dense communications network arose among the scientists that investigated curare, in order to exchange materials and information. By trying to follow the "ways of the curare", it is possible to gain a privileged perspective on the experimental practise of physiologists in the 18th and 19th centuries and, especially, on the exchange of ideas between natural scientists of different European nations in that period. At the core of this work, therefore, alongside the narrative of research on curare, is the reconstruction of this European communications network and the interactions between theoretical models and practical applications in the laboratory.

Pharmaceutical regulation in the Rhine province 1794 to 1877: 'industriousness'- patent law- medicine regulation

Researcher: Dr. Susanne Landgraf

In the wake of the annexation of Rhineland by the French in 1794-1812, legal innovations were also introduced in the duchy of Jülich-Berg, especially regarding the then established medicine regulations. To this also belongs the adoption of the first European act protecting inventors, the French patent law of 1791, which revolutionised drug regulatory affairs in the duchy alongside the regulation of patent protection it covered. As anywhere, also in Jülich-Berg there was, on the one hand, the established academic medical profession and, on the other hand, popular medicine, represented by numerous healers, who stood in opposition in a strongly competitive relationship. The medical profession, striving for medicalization, undertook strong efforts to marginalise the, extremely popular, healers and to oust them from the image of the medical profession by making them contemptible as 'botchers' and 'quacks'. The patent law now introduced by the French ensured a lot of unrest in medical circles; with its regulations on the wider dissemination of information on medicines and the promotion of the knowledge of useful remedies for the benefit of all subjects, it opened up unexpected possibilities for the despised folk doctors.

The law provided not only for integrating all potentially useful medicines, and therefore also the preparations of herb women and healers, in the official medical profession, but it also permitted 'inventors' among the people to openly sell 'their specific remedies against various diseases or substances that are useful as medicines'. What was completely revolutionary in the French patent law was, therefore, that the inventor of a medicine was allowed to keep the secret of its production, and thereby protect it. Anyone with a grain of wit, with sophistication or even genius who created something new, which in the end could be useful not just for the general public welfare, but especially for scientific success, was rewarded by the French lawmaker. Otherwise, as in Germany, the French conception of the industry did not tend only towards a bustle, but rather towards inventive industry. The patents for the invention and launch of medicinal products represented at the same time a monopoly in pharmaceutical trade and a potential risk of scarcity in precious medications, affecting negatively patent granting in the duchies. As a financial and trade law, patent law pushed up against the limits of medical regulation, to which medical treatment and insurance contracts belonged. Out of this came interactions on an individual (between healers, medical personnel and the public) as well as a collective level (between the authorities and the medical profession) that in the wake of pharmaceutical provision shaped the Rhine province. The goal of this study is to make transparent the interests of the actors on an individual as well as a collective basis. At this point, it is of particular interest what allocation mechanisms and readjustments these left behind on the rights of supply and allocation of pharmaceuticals. Furthermore, we need to follow up on the question of what influence the 1791 patent law bequeathed, especially in the process of reforming the character of medicine in Jülich-Bergs.

In the mirror of the abject: poison and mystery between literature and science.

Researchers: PD Dr. Martina Mittag, Prof. Dr. Bettina Wahrig

The aim of this project is to write a history of poison as a liminal object between science, literature and the public in the period 1750-1900. On the basis of literary and scientific treatments of poisons, we will investigate how the discursive structures of modern societies have developed, how biopolitical attempts at control were expressed as a 'technical' problem and how tendencies towards resistance became an integral part of power. Particular attention will be paid to the role of secrecy, publicity, power and intervention, as well as to the abject as articulation of ambivalence and resistance. The discourses that cross over the limits between scientific debates, aesthetic developments, legal discourses and the general public must also be studied. On the basis of selected poisons (curare, arsenic and opium), shifts in the discourse on poison will be tracked in relation to the idea of poison and its classification, to poison detection and its application to murder, to political, moral and aesthetic connotations as well as to implied negotiations of gender relations. Using communication on poisons, we will gain information on the restructuring of the European sphere of communication in the 19th century, including its colonial discourses (control and exclusion of the Foreign/the Other). In the interdisciplinary exchange between literary studies and history of science, we will make connections between this restructuring and the emergence of the modern concept of the organism, which played a decisive role in the development of experimental toxicology.

Medicines and confectionary. The pharmacy and courtly life in the 17th century

Project leader: Dr. Gabriele Wacker

A joint project of the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel and the Department of the History of Natural Sciences with empasis on the history of pharmacy

The aim of this project is the production of a monograph based on the analysis of a unique archival collection supplied by the court pharmacy of Wolfenbütteler in the 17th century. In a synoptic first part, the functions of an Early Modern pharmacy will be clearly described. In a second part, representative examples of the relationships between apothecary, doctor and prince will be offered and analysed. It should also be described to what extent the apothecary was not just a supplier of medicines, but also of substances that courtly life (including cosmetics and confectionary) or scientific experiments demanded. In an appendix in the form of a CD, the analysed archive materials of this project will also be made available.

The DFG-funded biological science research on rays and radioactivity and its borders, 1920-1970: Formation and devalopment of an intedisciplinary research field between physics and biological sciences.

Project leader: Dr. Alexander von Schwerin

This project investigates the role of the German Research Foundation, DFG (=NG, RFR, DFG) in the bioscience-oriented research on rays and radioactivity (in short: research on radioactivity) in the period 1920-1970. This is a contribution to the history of a scientific field transcending institutions and disciplines, which included, apart from biological sciences, also physics and chemistry. The organisation and reorganisation of institutional and personal structures and those of research practice will be described in relation to the political and social framework of radioactivity research (X-ray euphoria, system change, war research, the atomic age). The DFG can be seen as a particularly influential actor.

The social uses and risk potential of radioactivity made research on it a contested area in DFG funding. In addition, the pronounced interdisciplinarity of the field was crucial to its exceptional research dynamic. Radioactivity was from early on the point around which innovative experimental cultures crystallised and mobed to the centre of the genesis of molecular biology. While the DFG, already in the thirties and afterwards, strongly supported radiobiological research in war, radioactivity research with an orientation towards molecular biology in Germany became for the first time the main focus of research funding in the fifties. It can be shown that this on-going international shift of emphasis took place in parallel with the epistemic and corresponding political change from a static to a systemic risk and organism regulation model.

This project is part of the DFG research group for the history of the DFG (link).