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November 2010

The history of the microplate — a ubiquitous biomedical lab technology

By Biomedicine in museums

One of my favourite objects for acquisition and display from the world of biomedical and clinical laboratories is the microplate (microtiter plate, microwell plate).

A microplate is simply a series of small test tubes (‘wells’) arranged in a regular matrix pattern on a plastic plate, usually made from transparent polystyrene.

The little plate makes it possible to handle many samples in parallell—the most common size is 96 wells, but there are plates with several thousand wells—and the results can be read in an automated plate reader. In addition, the small size of the wells reduces sample volumes (from milliliter scale to nanoliter scale), which in turn saves money spent on reagents, like enzymes, which can be forbiddingly expensive.

So it’s simple, low-tech, modest, cheap and cost-saving—no doubt the main reasons why the microplate is a ubiquitous tool in laboratories around the world for all kinds of biomedical research and clinical diagnostics. Most of today’s high-throughput analysis in genomics and proteomics is unthinkable without microplates.

In other words—the perfect lab technology.

What about the history of the microplate? Professional historians of medicine and/or technology haven’t paid much attention to the unassuming plastic lab device. After a few minutes on the web, however, I found out that the earliest microplate seems to have been constructed by the Hungarian medical microbiologist Gyula Takácsy (1914-1980). The Hungarian National Center for Epidemiology writes on their website that:

To respond to the shortage in laboratory supplies and a severe influenza outbreak in the early 50s in Hungary, Dr. Takácsy developed several excellent innovative lab supplies and techniques much ahead of his age. Describing his technical innovation, the spiral loop instead of pipette and glass-plates with wells instead of tubes, he used the term micromethods published in Hungarian in 1952 and in 1955 in English. He was the first to have the notion to apply calibrated spiral wire loops for multiple simultaneous serial dilutions in plastic multiwell strips.

“… very small volumes of blood taken from the fingertip or from laboratory animals can be taken up and diluted for quantitative work. The technique has been found particularly useful in virus research, since it is not negligible how much has to be used from costly immune sera and antigens”.

His paper focused on the use of spiral loops for serial dilutions and the testing methods for haemagglutination and complement fixation, however, the “8×12 grooves” that “can take up to 0.15 ml fluid” could describe the modern microplate.

So disease and shortage of supplies was apparently the mother of microplate invention. Also in the 1950s, US inventor John Liner (who founded a company called Linbro, which was later merged into Flow Laboratories Inc, which in turn was swallowed by ICN Flow, which is taken has been over by MTX Lab Systems; mergers and acquisitions in the medical and laboratory device industry is an extremely interesting history in its own right) introduced a vacuum-formed panel with 96 wells. Looking back in the late 1990’s, Liner wrote that “I consider myself  the grandfather to the disposable microplate, about 1953 I used a white styrene vacuum formed panel …”. Yet another case of multiple invention.

I also found some technical details about the early development of microplate automation here, and I found a reference to a web publication (Ray Manns, Microplate history. 2nd ed. 1999; in L.J. Kricka and S.R. Master, ‘Quality Control and Protein Microarrays’, Clinical Chemistry vol. 55: 1053–1055 (2009)—but the publication seems to be removed from the site.

So the microplate is almost untrodden territory for historians of medical technology. Maybe a medical student would like to explore its history and importance for the development of genomics and proteomics in a term paper?

Intro to 'The Chemistry of Life' exhibition as a joint science and art exhibition (beta version)

By Biomedicine in museums

logo trykWe’ve just opened our new exhibition, ‘The Chemistry of Life’, in our satellite exhibition area in the main building of the Faculty of Health Sciences (the Panum Building). For the record, here’s the talk I gave at the opening (for images from the opening, see here):

The occasion for Medical Museion’s new exhibition, ’The Chemistry of Life’, is the new Center for Basic Metabolic Research here at the Faculty of Health Sciences.

But the Center is only the occasion. What you will see in a few minutes is not an exhibition about any of the aspects of metabolism—diabetes, or obesity, or insulin resistance, or the metabolic syndrome—which the Center will be focus on in the years to come.

Instead, we have chosen to take a look at the long research tradition that the Center has grown out of. We are presenting four snapshots from the long and complex history of metabolic research. Each snapshot represents a constellation of people, things and ideas from a significant phase in this history. And to make it easier for you to differentiate between these four constellations, we have given them different colours: green, orange, blue and lilac.

santoriolilleWe begin in Italy back in the early 17th century, where we examplify an early approach to metabolism with Santorio Santorio, a medical doctor in Padua, who made his way into the hall of fame of medical history, because he applied Galileo Galilei’s quantitative principle to physiology: “Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not”. For example, Santorio famously put himself in a chair balance to measure how his body lost weight even when no excretions could be registered.

Unfortunately, our tight budget hasn’t allowed us pay the insurance costs for borrowing original 17th century instruments from our Italian science museum colleagues. So to illustrate Santorio’s quantitative spirit, we had to find objects—balances, pulse meters, and thermometers—from later periods, in our own collections.

panumlilleThen we make a leap forward, more than 200 years in time, to Copenhagen in the mid-19th century, when Peter Ludvig Panum laid the foundation of the strong Danish tradition for experimental physiology. Medical Museion has a wonderful collection of instruments used by mid- and late century Danish physiologists—it’s every historical instrument collector’s dream-come-true (and one of the reasons why we soon need to strengthen the fire security around these internationally unique collections even more).

kroghlilleAgain a leap, now another 50 years, to the Nobel winning research done by August Krogh and by his wife Marie Krogh in the first decades of the 20th century. August Krogh was a pioneer in the study of whole-body gas exchange and also a very prolific inventor of instruments. We actually have quite a few of these in Medical Museion’s collections, and we are very proud to be able to display some of these in this show, for example this balance spirometer, which Marie Krogh used in her clinical studies of basic metabolic rates:


And finally, the last leap. In the fourth (lilac) theme we are entering a territory, which historians so far have largely stayed away from, namely contemporary research in molecular metabolism, genomic research, genome-wide association studies and so forth. We are shaky grounds here, because we don’t have the historical distance to the events. molecularlilleAs historians, we don’t really know yet which the significant breakthroughs have been. We don’t know who the Santorios, the Panums and the Kroghs of contemporary molecular metabolic studies are. For us, these people are still Nomina Nescimus (unknown names), and therefore we need your help to identify them and their contributions. I’ll get back to this in a few minutes.

Like all serious science exhibitions, ‘The Chemistry of Life’ is actually research-based. The two main curators—postdoc Adam Bencard and former consultant Sven Erik Hansen—have read quite a lot from the 19th and 20th physiological literature, and spent months looking at objects and images in our collection. Every word in this exhibition has been chosen with great care, from both medical, historical and philosophical points of view. In one sense then (in terms of the making of it) this is a research-based exhibition. But in another sense (in terms of the way it presents itself to the spectator), we think of it rather as a work of art.

Not just as a display of works of art, like this painting by David Goodsell at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla (which we commissioned from him specifically for this occasion):


We also see the exhibition itself as an art installation. By taking things out of their laboratory context and placing them in this new setting, they are transformed, from being scientific objects to becoming art objects. Taken as a whole they constitute a joint science and art exhibition. Not sci-art, but joint science and art.

By thinking exhibitions about science in terms of art installations and art exhibitions, Medical Museion in joining a growing trend within the world of museums of science, technology and medicine. Most of these mueums still understand themselves as informal learning institutions. They want to make people, including students, interested in science by teaching the history of science.

But what we at Medical Museion – and some of our good colleagues, like the Wellcome Collection in London – are increasingly trying to do, is to work out an alternative to this didactical understanding of what science museums and their exhibitions are good for.

Instead of making exhibitions that teach and explain science and the history of science, we rather want to engage the audience to reflect. Not because we don’t believe in the importance of learning about science and its history. But because we believe learning is done much better by other means—in teaching laboratories, by reading books, or through the internet—than by means of exhibitions. What the exhibition medium is good at, is to engage people’s aesthetic sensibilities. By whetting the appetite of the senses, exhibitions can evoke a more subjective, personal-based and thereby deeper reflection about science, its history and its future.

Back to the fourth theme (the lilac one) about today’s metabolic research. Like a growing number of museums—but not necessarily the same museums who think in terms of art installations—we believe that exhibition making has to be built on participation. Of course, museum professionals take a lot of pride in trying to produce perfectly researched and perfectly designed exhibitions (and we at Medical Museion are no exception). Yet, we must realize that such pride in perfection does not necessarily result in engaged visitors.

And for that reason, some museums around the world have begun to ask their visitors and peers to contribute more actively to the museum functions. In analogy to social web media, some museums are now thinking in terms of the ‘participatory museum’ (‘museum 2.0’).

With respect to collections, the idea of a participatory museum is not a particularly new one. For example, our museum here in Copenhagen has been participatory since its foundation in 1907, in the sense that most objects in our rich collections have been donated by medical doctors. Also for ‘The Chemistry of Life’ we have collected from scientists and medical device companies.

With respect to exhibitions, however, few science museums have so far thought these in terms of participation. But this is about change. ‘The Chemistry of Life’ is an experiment in participatory exhibition making. 5208427115_6bb07abd80_mLike software, which is never really finished, but is improved by the responses from the customers, we have thought it—especially the fourth chapter on ‘Molecular Metabolism—as a ‘beta version’.

By labeling it ‘beta’ we are inviting all faculty, technical staff and students at the University of Copenhagen to help us developing ‘The Chemistry of Life’. Instead of us telling you what is going on in metabolic research, we want you to educate us. For example, we will invite scientists, who have been part of the development of the last decades of metabolic research to a seminar, where we will ask them to tell us what they think are the most important idas, events and people in the history of the field. They may not agree among themselves, but we will nevertheless be more knowledgeable after the seminar.

We are also planning an ‘object’-day, where we invite scientists and medical doctors from the entire region to bring images of their favourite objects, or (even better) bring in the objects themselves. The result should hopefully be that, at the official opening of the Center for Basic Metabolic Research in the spring, we can show a revised version of ‘The Chemistry of Life’, especially a much more interesting and thought-provoking fourth theme.

The notion of ‘beta’ also indicates how Medical Museion will work together with the Center in the years to come. We are right now making plans for a series of exhibitions about diabetes, obesity and the new metabolic syndrome—to be shown both in Denmark and abroad, both to professionals and to the general public—and we very much want to do this in close co-operation with scientists and students here at the Faculty.

Before I give the word back to the Dean, I want to express my gratitude to the individuals, institutions and companies, who have made this exhibition possible:

  • Arne Astrup, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Copenhagen
  • Lene Berlick, Illumina, Little Chesterford
  • Jan Fahrenkrug, Bispebjerg Hospital, Copenhagen
  • Pia Gåsland, Agilent Technologies, Hørsholm
  • David Goodsell, The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla
  • Jens Juul Holst, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Copenhagen
  • Anders Johnsen, Rigshospitalet, Copenhagen
  • John Gargul Lind, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Copenhagen
  • Oluf Borbye Pedersen, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Copenhagen
  • Jens F. Rehfeldt, Rigshospitalet, Copenhagen
  • Thue Schwartz, Faculty of Health Science, University of Copenhagen
  • Anna Smith, The Wellcome Collection, London
  • Mao Tanabe, Kanehisa Laboratory, Kyoto

and to the Novo Nordisk Foundation for its generous economic support.

And finally the exhibition team. If this was a scientific article, the team would be presented somewhat like this:

Bencard A, Hansen SE, Thorsted M, Madsen H, Gerdes N, Vilstrup-Møller NC, Meyer I, Pedersen BV, Soderqvist T. The chemistry of life: four chapters in the history of metabolic research. Panum Building 2010; 4:1

Or more conventionally like this:

  • Curators: Adam Bencard, Sven Erik Hansen
  • Collection staff: Nanna Gerdes, Niels Christian Vilstrup-Møller, Ion Meyer
  • Architect: Mikael Thorsted
  • Graphic design: Helle Madsen
  • Graphic production: Exponent Stougaard A/S
  • Producers: Bente Vinge Pedersen, Thomas Söderqvist

Here we are:


Speaking for all of us: I hope you will enjoy this appetizer to a future co-operative science communication programme here at the Faculty which shall engage both scientists and the public in what has been going on in metabolic research in the past, what is going on today, and what we might expect from the future.

Piotr Piotrowski on 'the critical museum'

By Biomedicine in museums

A month ago, the Director of the Polish National Museum in Warsaw, Piotr Piotrowski, resigned after the museum’s Board of Trustees had rejected his strategy for the development of the museum. The resignation took place only two years after the Board of Trustees had offered Piotrowski the position on the basis of his proposal for an earlier version of a radical change of the museum, called ‘The critical museum’.

The aim of this proposal was to open the museum to the problems of today’s world and transform it from its status as a provincial version of great museums to an independent institution of intellectual culture which was to compete with commercial tourist attractions. Some local observers believe the Board of Trustee’s rejection of Piotrowski’s strategic plans for the futher development of the museum was related to last summer’s controversial exhibition ‘Ars Homoerotica‘; others believe he had to resign because the museum staff couldn’t accept the new strategy.

Whatever reason, Piotrowski’s ideas about a ‘critical museum’ are important and deserve wider circulation. I’m grateful for his permission to post this English translation of a summary of his thoughts:

Critical Museum
In fact, simplifying to some extent, one can distinguish among three types of museums: museum as a temple attended by the faithful who believe in the dogma of the “sacred” character of art, museum as a place of entertainment, “mcdonaldized,” as it were, and involved in the global networks of consumerism and tourism, and museum as a forum which wants to perform critical tasks and encourage reflection on the changing world both on the macro- and micro-scale.

The idea of the museum-as-forum, which Hans Belting refers only to one type of the museum as a response to the globalization of culture and its local aspects, i. e. to the MoCA, should be applied to the mission of another type, i. e. the “universal survey museum.” (Hans Belting, “Contemporary Art and the Museum in the Global Age,” in Peter Weibel, Andrea Buddensieg, eds, Contemporary Art and the Museum. Ostfildern: Hantje Cantz Verlag, 2007, pp. 30-37).

The potential of the “provincialization of the West” in respect to museums I can see in the idea of the “critical museum” – on the one hand, local, not to say “provincial,” and on the other, global. The role of museums is not so much to help develop a new “empire,” but a global politeia, a global constitution of the world on the local, not to say, “provincial” agora. Only such a museum will be able to support the ways of controlling international politics. It will do it by its influence and by addressing local problems which, because of the cosmopolitization of the local, are acquiring global significance. In other words, what gives us a chance is the idea of a local “critical museum” with global ambitions.

There are at least two levels on which such a museum can operate. One of them is its participation on the local agora, analyzing social and political questions, recognized as the key ones for a particular community. Since, however, local communities are in the process of global changing, to address local issues is at the same time global. Not only London is a cosmopolitan European city with its multicultural social strata. Also smaller cities in Europe, including Central and Eastern Europe, are changing their character in the same way, too, however, not in the same extent. Warsaw for example is not such a cosmopolitan center as London, is not a metropolis in the above mentioned degree, and perhaps will never be. However, its character is changing very fast. The local society is much more complex and differentiated in terms of ethnic, political, sexual etc. identities, than it used to be before 1989. The critical museum, thus, should address these processes.

The other level is to rethink the internal condition of the museum in such a historical context, and develop a sort of self-criticism. Something as a critique of local artistic cannons, or relations between local and international art history, should be a subject of a new museum strategy. In one word: both of them, i.e. museum participation in the agora and reshaping its traditional (national and hierarchical) concept of the museum, should be a point of departure in the process of creating the idea of the critical museum, and at the same time its new identity in the face of contemporary cultural and social processes. The theoretical basis of such a museum concept is the museum studies, called also critical museum studies, or new museology, has been developing for ca. thirty years mostly at the universities and art criticism.

Will museums or, more precisely, the type of museum called “universal survey museum,” rooted in a nationalist ideology and European, Western hegemony, prove able to face the challenge? Will the potential of scholarship, if one defines it as critical reflection on reality, be used to transform museums into critical institutions, to cover the distance between the critique of the institution to the institution that is critical? Will the museum or, again, more precisely, the “universal survey museum,” use critical theory, well developed at the universities, and change it into critical practice? Will it drop its role of the mausoleum and become a public forum shaping a politeia? All these questions still remain to be answered.

© Piotr Piotrowski, 2010.

What metaphors are we molecularising by?

By Biomedicine in museums

Drew Berry, the outstanding molecular animator at the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, says (according to Science Roll):

Scientists have always done pictures to explain their ideas, but now we’re discovering the molecular world and able to express and show what it’s like down there

I know Melbourne, Australia, in ‘down under’. But is the molecular world ‘down there’? Is ‘going down’ the best metaphor for going from the macroworld of the anatomical body to the microworld of the molecular body? Is it a vertical movement that comes first to mind? Are we going ‘deeper’ into the body, as if we were entering a deep mine?

My intuition is that we move ‘into’ the molecular world rather than ‘down to’ it.

Maybe Drew Berry is thinking in analogy to a microscope, where we look ‘down’ through the microscope on the tiny things below?

Milena Penkowa-sagen

By Biomedicine in museums

Weekendavisen hævder i dag, at KU-neurobiologen Milena Penkowa har brugt forskningsmidler til private formål.

Hvis påstandene er rigtige, er de måske et udtryk for hovedaktørens udtalelser i et interview til for halvandet år siden:

Jeg ser muligheder og optimeringsbehov i alt omkring mig, ikke kun i forskningen. Af samme grund er næsten alle mine ejendele inklusive min lejligheds inventar blevet ændret, transformeret (redesignet) og optimeret ud fra egen forestilling om individualitet, originalitet og/eller øget funktionalitet. (eksempelvis har jeg ‘customized’ mine møbler, mit tøj etc.). Dén karakter afspejler blot min pionérånd, innovationstalent og ledernatur. Jeg er meget viljestærk, ekstremt målrettet og fuld af selvtillid, selvsikkerhed og mod, hvilket er mig til gavn i min forskning og i livet generelt

Og, tillægger hun: “Jeg skelner ikke mellem min ‘professionelle’ og ‘private’ person: min person er en livsstil” (sic!).

Se videre min tidligere kommentar om den sublime biomedicinske selviscenesættelse her.

Participatory media aren't as new as we sometimes believe

By Biomedicine in museums

Many of us probably believe that participatory media is something new. But in the newly published History of Participatory Media: Politics and Publics, 1750–2000 (edited by Anders Ekström, Solveig Jülich, Frans Lundgren, and Per Wisselgren, Routledge, 2010) it is argued that “scholarly discussions on participatory media … are all too often obscured by a rhetoric of newness, assuming that participatory media is something unique in history, radical and  revolutionary”. See more here.

The early history of drug abuse in Denmark

By Biomedicine in museums

We were so pleased to hear, a couple of days ago, that our own Jesper V. Kragh has just secured a two year external research grant for his project “The History of Drug Abuse in Denmark, 1870-1955” from the Danish Research Council for Culture and Communication.

Jesper distinguishes two different narratives about drug abuse. One is the well known story about psychotropic drugs being introduced in the late 1960s, “when groups of counterculture rebels began experimenting with heroin and other narcotics, but this experimental and recreational use of drugs turned into a social problem which still persists today”. Most drug abusers suffer from a lack of education, and are unemployed and homeless.

But, reminds Jesper us about, there is another, and more interesting narrative, which is unfamiliar to most people today, at least in Denmark (the British, of course, have the story about Sherlock Holmes as a reminder). Drug abuse was a problem already in the 1870s, when the use of morphine and other opiates became a problem for certain groups of Danes. But these people almost exclusively came from the upper or well educated middle classs.

So far, there has been no study of Danish history of drug abuse in the period from the late nineteenth century to the 1950s. In addition to exploring this unknown history of drug addiction, Jesper also wants to focus on aspects of drug abuse that have received only scant attention in the international historiography of addiction, viz., the psychiatric treatment. In doing this Jesper will draw on his extensive experience in using psychiatric hospital records as a major source.

So look out for publications from Jesper’s keyboard in the next couple of years — and maybe some intermittent blog posts as well.

The Seven Sisters: Subgenres of bioi of contemporary life scientists

By Biomedicine in museums

merope2Last winter, I was invited to contribute to a thematic issue (edited by Oren Harman) on scientific biography for the Journal of the History of Biology

I decided to revisit and revise a genre analysis I had written a couple of years earlier and the result is an article titled ‘The Seven Sisters: Subgenres of bioi of contemporary life scientists’. A draft manuscript was submitted for peer review in the early spring, and the final version by the end of May. Now, the last corrections have been made and it will hopefully appear in the winter 2011 issue. Here’s the abstract:

Today, scientific biography is primarily thought of as a way of writing contextual history of science. But the genre has other functions as well. This article discusses seven kinds of ideal-typical subgenres of scientific biography. In addition to its mainstream function as an ancilla historiae, it is also frequently used to enrich the understanding of the individual construction of scientific knowledge, to promote the public engagement with science, and as a substitute for belles-lettres. Currently less acknowledged kinds of scientific biography include its use as a medium for public and private, respectively, commemoration. Finally, the use of scientific biography as a research (virtue) ethical genre, providing examples of ‘the good life in science’, is emphasized.

It would actually be fun to make a similar analysis of more recent biographical and autobiographical texts by life scientists published on the web.

New Centre for Medical Science and Technology Studies at the University of Copenhagen opens on 2 December

By Biomedicine in museums

On Thursday 2 December, a new Centre for Medical Science and Technology Studies at the University of Copenhagen is inaugurated with talks by Sarah Franklin and Ken Arnold.

Sarah Franklin will speak about “Life After the In Vitro Fertilisation: Biology Has Become a Technology?”. Sarah Franklin is well-known for his studies of in vitro fertilisation, cloning, embryo research and stem cell research. Her latest book is about the cloned sheep, Dolly. Since 2004 she has been a professor at the London School of Economics, where she has led the BIOS Centre together with Nicholas Rose.

Ken Arnold, who will speak about “Art and Communication of Medical Science”, is Head of Public Programmes at the Wellcome Trust, where, among others things, he has been responsible for the Trust’s collaborative projects between scientists and artists. He is primarily known as the initiator of and creative director of the Wellcome Collection, which is one of the world’s most successful arenas for biomedical science communication. In 2010-2013, Ken Arnold is visiting professor at Medical Museion, where he will contribute to the museum’s efforts to build an integrated research and public engagement programme for medical science and technology.

The Centre is a collaboration between Medical Museion and the Section for Health Services Research at the Faculty of Health Sciences’ Department of Public Health. The faculty of the new Centre includes Lene Koch (head of center), Thomas Söderqvist, Signild Vallgårda, Mette Nordahl Svendsen, Klaus Høyer, Jan Kyrre Berg Friis, Henriette Langstrup, Annegrete Juul and Adam Bencard. About ten postdoc’s and PhD students are currently attached to the Centre..

The Centre is co-operating closely with the new PhD-program for Medical Science and Technology Studies at the Faculty of Health Sciences, led by Thomas Söderqvist.

The opening takes place in Medical Museion’s Anatomical Theatre on Thursday 2 December at 3pm. After the talks there will be a wine and sandwich reception.