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Biomedicine in museums

More on small animal guillotines — an invisible practice

I distributed my memory of being a biochemistry student swinging rats by their tails through the air so the neck landed on a bench edge (no blood, just a momentarily broken neck) to the rete list, adding:

It took some training to land it exactly on the edge, though; some less manually skilled students smashed the rat’s back on the table, which only paralysed it. I must confess that I sort of liked this swinging procedure, to the great admiration and horror of some of the other (female) students. Sublime! Gothic biochemistry, to paraphrase Bruce Sterling.

This provoked another round of comments, which I take the liberty to quote from (they are publicly accessible in rete’s online archive), because they throw some additional light on the rat guillotine phenomenon.

Frank Manasek (cf. earlier post) remembers that “there actually was very little blood – the little critters don’t have a lot”:

Lab rats are pretty big and I never saw the guillotine used on rats – Thomas is right – the swinging technique was preferred. I seem to recall that mice and hamsters weigh about 100 grams and rats maybe 5 times that. Rats also bite so you have to be careful.

and adds that:

A drawback of the guillotine is that the decapitated animal has spasms and if you want to get an organ out very quickly it can be a problem. I used to take out hamster spleens and there was always a slight delay. A table-edged rat only quivered.

Steven Turner at the Smithsonian (see also earlier post), remember chatting with the scientist who brought the rat guillotine in to their collection:

It was part of a large group of instruments that he had pulled out of the trash as the FDA labs were being reorganized. He hadn’t worked with the guillotine personally, but we all assumed that the red base was to disguise the blood released during decapitation. However, since Frank and others report very little blood being “spilled” this may not be correct. It’s possible that the red paint was meant as a caution aqainst cutting off one’s own finger – which seems like a real possibility with this instrument. On the other hand, a busy government testing lab might have sacrificed a lot of animals.

To which Frank responds:

Steve, on a busy morning I might have sacrificed 200 hamsters – very little blood as I recall. Mostly fur clogging the knife. Yes there was danger of finger loss- animals often were sacrificed in a cold room (4 C) – my hamsters were (the reason here was that they were cold-adapted) and fingers could get numb quickly.

These interesting comments remind me about that we are dealing here with a kind of invisible practice in the history of recent biomedicine. A practice that permeats much of the daily routines in the laboratory but is almost unaccessible through the published literature or laboratory notebooks. A practice that, to my best knowledge, no oral historian of biomedicine or biomedical memoir has so far touched upon.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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