Ask Me Another

In Suffering for Science: Reason and Sacrifice in Modern America, Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies Rebecca Herzig examines the history of the idea that personal sacrifice is the price that scientists must pay for legitimacy. Now in paperback by Rutgers University Press, the book uses grisly accounts of experiments with yellow fever and X-rays to make surprising points about changing concepts of selfhood and citizenship. Herzig talked with staff writer Doug Hubley.

Q Those suffering scientists took a romantic view of a field ostensibly rooted in pure objectivity.

A: Yes, but particularly in the period after the Civil War, as the nation developed a market in free labor. What did it really mean to be free? If you had to work to put food on the table, if there were no social safety nets, if you couldn’t find work, how free were you? Scientists reflected these concerns about freedom by talking about themselves as “slaves to science” — taking up a language of enslavement that had a very different meaning after racial emancipation.

Q “Enslavement” by choice?
A: Exactly. What’s interesting is which people could choose to suffer. You had to be at a certain level of affluence and social privilege to be able to throw yourself away. So there’s an interesting paradox: You assert your privilege by demonstrating your capacity for suffering.

Q In your work, scientific and social history seem to play out in the realm of the body.

A: And what’s counted as a human body isn’t as obvious as we might think. There are people who were not always considered members of the human species. There are “things” — stem cells, or fetuses — considered by some people to be objects and by others to be members of the species. So even who or what counts as human is where pressing questions about justice can work themselves out.

Q Your next book brings similar questions about freedom and selfhood to the history of female body practices. So women paid, as late as the 1940s, for hair removal by X-ray?

A: Yes! My research on those women preceded Suffering for Science. Doctors described them as vain, ignorant, unreasonable. And it was hard to miss that in the same medical journal would be an article about one of these guys who had X-rayed himself into smithereens — but he would be described as noble, heroic, and selfless. These men were understood as eminently rational, and the women as lacking reason, so it’s sort of the opposite problem.

Q What’s the legacy of “suffering for science”?

A: I often hear around Bates that science is harder than any of the other pursuits we have. Students talk about this a lot, whether they’re majoring in science or not. They don’t simply mean intellectually challenging — they mean physically, emotionally, and socially debilitating, and only people who can stick that out can major in science.