Skip to main content
Monthly Archives

March 2009

Putting our image archive on Flickr?

By Biomedicine in museums

Our colleagues at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (in DC) are right now experiencing a dramatically increasing traffic from all over the world to their unofficial Repository of Bottled Monsters blog. From about 100 views a day to 300 views an hour last week.

The reason for this stunning outreach success is that and many other websites have spread the news about the NMHM staff’s work to put the museum’s picture archive on Flickr. In a few week’s time, more than half a million Flickr users have seen the exquisite collection of images, especially of American war medicine.

The US Army (which owns NMHM) are imposing a general ban on letting its employees and institutions have access to Flickr (and other social network sites), so the NMHM staff decided to put the pictures on Flickr from their home computers in their spare time.

Many other institutions already do this (in their working hours :-). For example the Smithsonian has a great photostream on Flickr Commons. So do Powerhouse, the National Galleries of Scotland, the Swedish National Heritage Board (two weeks ago), and many others. But what the NMHM example shows better than these is that a presence on the Commons can make a small institution and its blog blossom.

Here at Medical Museion we have so far been somewhat reluctant to think in these terms, not only because it’s a big and expensive operation to put our rich image archive online, but also because we are already getting some direly needed income from selling images.

But maybe we should put the image collection online for free? We will miss a few thousand DKK a year in monetary revenues, that’s right. But the good-will revenue from posting them in the public space, for example, under a Creative Commons license, will probably be much higher — and in the long run it might, as a side-effect, increase our overall revenues.

Wikipedia protects the 'Genetics' article, but not the 'Medicine' article

By Biomedicine in museums

Nick Carr (Rough Type) has an interesting comment about Wikipedia. Referring to an essay in yesterday’s Sunday Times by Noam Cohen, who likens Wikipedia to a city with features like ‘basic civility, trust, cultural acceptance and self-organizing qualities’, Carr points out that policing is an increasingly important feature of the popular online encyclopedia:

It’s the fact that Wikipedia has imposed editorial controls [on certain articles] … restricting who can edit them.

In other words, if you visit a noncontroversial Wikipedia article, like ‘Toothpick’, you are still allowed to edit it. But if you visit articles like ‘Barack Obama’, ‘Islam’, or ‘Sex’ you will find a ‘view source’ tab instead of the usual ‘edit this page’ tab. Trustful self-organisation has been replaced by editorial policing.

Interesting! I’ve never thought about this. So I made a rapid search for ‘Genetics’, ‘Medicine’, ‘Evolution’, ‘RNA’ and ‘DNA’. And guess what — ‘Genetics’, ‘Evolution’ and ‘DNA’ are apparently too contested to be open for bottom-up editing, while ‘Medicine’ and ‘RNA’ are seemingly uncontroversial (so far). See here:


To some extent this is self-evident. I’m not surprised there are thousands of wackos out there who love to infest the Wikipedia article on ‘Evolution’. But why ‘DNA’ and ‘Genetics’ — and not ‘RNA’?

Do social scientists dream about biomedical futures? Or do they have nightmares only?

By Biomedicine in museums

In an interview for the Danish daily Information about his new book The Politics of Climate Change — which is scheduled for publication in May, with laudatory pre-blurbs by Martin Rees, Ulrich Bech and Bill Clinton on — British sociologist Anthony Giddens reminds us that Martin Luther King famously said ‘I have a dream’, not ‘I have a nightmare’. In other words: dystopian thinking is not a good basis for political action.

I guess he’s basically right. There is much that supports the idea that climate policy changes will be served better by what Giddens (1990) called ‘realistic utopianism’ than by fear scenarios (even though critical and negative scenarios sometimes are necessary stepping stones towards more positive agendas).

However, it makes me wonder: could the same reasoning be applied to the way we talk about biomedicine and medical technology?

I’m asking because almost everything I have read about biomedical and medical technology policy in books and articles by social scientists and humanities scholars over the last decades has been guided by what one could call a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion‘.

The scholarly literature is carried by a strong, mostly unexplicit, undercurrent of skepticism and negative criticism. Biomedicine and medical technology invariably poses ethical, political and social ‘problems’ and ‘challenges’ — rarely opportunities, possibilities or means for liberation. Social science and humanities scholars writing about the future of biomedicine and medical technology have nightmares, rarely dreams.

I guess the ubiquity of this critical and negative scholarship could be understood as a kind of collective gut reaction against the commonplace (and often pretty naïve) scenarios of a bright biomedical and medicotechnological future envisioned by scientists and engineers. The biotech revolution has to a large degree been carried by enthusiastic utopianism. Pharma websites are cluttered with pictures of happy children playing on lush green meadows with beautiful mothers and benevolent-looking grandpas in the background.

So I understand the need for a balance. But why do we have to choose between naïve scientific and corporate enthusiasm on the one hand and academic skepticism on the other? Why is it so difficult for social science and humanities scholars to develop a more ‘realistic utopianism’ with respect to the future development of biomedicine and medical technology?

At the moment, academic designers (like Suzanne Lee) seem to be more upbeat than social scientists and humanities scholars. Could we learn from the attitude of bio-designers and bioartists to avoid the quagmire of negative scenarios?

Observing the others, watching over oneself

By Biomedicine in museums

The paper that Susanne and Jan Eric (who are both working in our ‘Biomedicine on Display’ project) presented at the third Surveillance & Society conference in Sheffield in April 2008 (see earlier blog post here) has just been published in the journal Surveillance & Society (vol. 6, 2009). Here’s the abstract:

This article explores two instances of medical surveillance that illustrate post-panoptic views of the body in biomedicine, from the patient to the population. Techniques of surveillance and monitoring are part of medical diagnostics, epidemiological studies, aetiologic research, health care management; they also co-shape individual engagements with illness. In medicine, surveillance data come as digital anatomies for educational purposes and clinical diagnostics that subject the body to imaging techniques, but also as databases of patient collectives that are established in large-scale, at times nationwide, epidemiological studies. We will show that techniques of medical surveillance now include more bottom-up and less-centralized modes as well: with web 2.0 applications, one encounters endoscopic clips uploaded and made public on the internet and tools to navigate through patterns of sickness in urban space. Surveillance techniques directed at individual patients and at population health reconfigure the constellation of the body, space and the gaze into a post-panoptic distributed mode.

Read the full paper online here.

Ideen om en humanistisk lægevidenskab er tautologisk

By Biomedicine in museums

I næste nummer af tidskriftet Bibliotek for Læger  (200 års jubilæumsnummer) kommer der er interview med mig om lægevidenskab, humanisme og nye menneskesyn. Interviewet er lavet som en let redigeret mailudveksling mellem mig og tidskriftets redaktør, Christian Graugaard. Hele interviewet publiceres under overskriften ‘Næste stop: Blog for Læger’. Her er den første mailudveksling:

Kære Thomas,

Vi får ofte at vide, at vi skal værne om lægevidenskabens humanistiske aspekter. Men hvad mener vi egentlig, når vi taler om “humanisme” i forbindelse med det sundhedsfaglige område? Taler vi om en særlig verdensanskuelse, et menneskesyn? Eller skal det forstås mere konkret? Jeg er forvirret.


Hej Christian,

Det er et godt spørgsmål. Forestillingen om en humanistisk medicin må ud fra en historisk betragtning siges at være tautologisk. Humanismen opstod i slutningen af middelalderen og handler grundlæggende om at søge viden om verden på andre måder end ved at henvise til tradition, autoritet, åbenbaring eller mystik. En videnskabelig, rationel, erfaringsbaseret og logisk tilgang til studiet af menneskets krop og sind er derfor humanistisk i ordets klassiske betydning. Man kan altså med vis ret hævde, at al moderne medicin er humanistisk – i modsætning til de såkaldt alternative behandlingsmetoder, som i de fleste tilfælde bygger på tro og på behandlerens autoritet. Så i princippet ville man med fordel kunne droppe tillægsordet ”humanistisk”. Det giver ikke meget mening at tale om de ”humanistiske” aspekter af lægevidenskab, fordi al lægevidenskab i bund og grund er humanistisk. Ud fra samme logik kan man sige, at evidensbaseret medicin er det mest avancerede udtryk for humanistisk medicin.


(fortsætning følger)

Human-animal relationship — opportunity for research at the PhD-level

By Biomedicine in museums

Research animals in the history of 20th century biomedicine has received quite a lot of attention in recent years. And what animal is more interesting than the pig! Our colleagues in Health Services Research Unit here in Copenhagen are announcing a three-year position as PhD-student in a new research project, headed by Lene Koch, called “Modelling pigs and humans: Understanding human/animal connections in translational research”. The general aim of the project is to “investigate the moral, socio-material, technical and organisational work that is needed in order to establish the pig as locus of producing knowledge about human life and disease”. The PhD student they are looking for right now is expected to work on a subproject titled “Extending life: The use of transgenic (humanised) pigs as disease models in biomedical research and treatment” which addresses

the social dimensions and epistemic aspirations of the emerging field of translational medicine within selected biomedical research areas. Specifically, the moral, socio-material organisational and scientific work performed to establish the pig as a potential for modelling human organs and/or functions in research settings and in patient treatment.

Sounds like a great project and a great opportunity for an exciting PhD project. Contact Lene Koch ( for further details.

(the pig above — from Struve Labs that produce pigs for pig-huma-tranplants — has no relation to Lene’s project)

Knowledge, ethics and representations of medicine and health (CFP)

By Biomedicine in museums

The theme of the 2010 meeting of the Society for the Social History of Medicine in Durham and Newcastle, 8-11 July 2010, will be ‘Knowledge, Ethics and Representations of Medicine and Health: Historical Perspectives’. The organisers particularly encourage proposals for 20 min papers addressing questions such as:

  • What processes have generated knowledge about the body, illness and health that has become authoritative in different societies?
  • How have claims of medical expertise been justified vis à vis claims from other domains of social and cultural authority such as religion and law?
  • What did it mean for medical practitioners in different cultural and social contexts to claim to be ethical as well as knowledgeable?
  • How did they present themselves to the public?
  • What kind of material, visual and textual representations of body, mind, health and disease have gained ‘defining power’ exerting influence on medical practice and research until today?

Otherwise no restriction re. period or geographical region. They also want panel session proposals (with 3 papers). Send 250 word abstracts to before 1 November. For more info, see

Morbid Anatomy enters the Observatory

By Biomedicine in museums

Next time you happen to be in New York, make sure you pay a visit to Observatory, a new collaborative presentation / screening / classroom / exhibition located at 543 Union Street in Brooklyn. The collaborators include Joanna Ebenstein (Morbid Anatomy), Michelle Enemark and Dylan Thuras (Curious Expeditions), Pam Grossman (Phantasmaphile), Herbert Pfostl, illustrator/animator G. F. Newland, and video and book artist James Walsh. Plans for Observatory include lectures screenings, exhibitions, book-release parties, classes, and symposia. For recent events, see here and here.

A personal turn in 'biomedical studies'?

By Biomedicine in museums

Studies of biomedicine (a subarea of science studies) has long been defined in terms of social studies of biomedicine (social studies of science). Over the years, some, but alas not many, scholars (including myself) have tried to infuse some awareness of the individual and personal dimensions of biomedicine.

Now, an interdisciplinary conference titled ‘Turning Personal’ at the University of Manchester, 16-17 September, promises to take the discussion a step forward by providing a forum for the discussion of how social research can incorporate more complex and multi-layered accounts of personal lives into academic writings and analyses:

It has been argued that we now have a sociology without real people and the same may be said of some sister disciplines and although there have always been threads of work which re-imagine the personal (eg biographical work) there is more to be done and said about capturing some of the more detailed aspects of personal lives, as well as theorising personal life more cogently.

Topics include (e.g.) emotions and emotional spaces, escape(s) from intimacy, relationships/ relationality/ connectedness, virtual lives and second lives, impersonal lives, writing / researching / theorising the personal. Keynote speakers include Carol Smart (Uni Manchester), who works on how people conduct their personal lives, Tia DeNora (Uni Exeter), who is interested in musical selves in musical spaces, and Ann Phoenix (Institute of Education, London). Send abstract submission (here) to before 1 April.