International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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TUESDAY, JULY 7  /  15:30 - 17:00  /  DS-M320
Organized session / standard talks
Topics in the history of genetics (2)

Marsha Richmond (Wayne State University, United States)

Genetics witnessed some of the most dramatic advances in knowledge of any of the natural sciences in the twentieth century. From the rise of the Mendelian chromosome theory in the first two decades of “classical genetics,” the development of biochemical and structural techniques for unravelling the nature of the genetic material and its functioning, and the rise of population genetics leading to the Evolutionary Synthesis, the discipline witnessed dramatic breakthroughs in knowledge and in practice. These two sessions focus on pivotal moments in the historical trajectory of the discipline of genetics in the 20th century. The first examines episodes in theory construction and social practice in genetics, while the second highlights human-oriented studies of populations and the rise of the field of human and medical genetics.

Are international networks enough? The genetics of indigenous populations in Mexico in the mid-1960s

Edna Suárez-Díaz (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico)

The history of post-WWI human genetics has increasingly paid attention to actors and locations that did not have a place in previous narratives. A broader understanding of public health practices around the world, the role of international agencies and Cold War concerns have also had an impact on historical studies of this period. Nevertheless, much remains to be done. A thoroughly inclusive view of human population studies must recognize the transnational – but local— character of the field, and how it was composed by different and sometimes contradictory discourses and practices. This paper aims to draw attention, and add needed contrast, to two relevant actors in the study of Mexican populations: Rubén Lisker (director of the Genetics Department at the National Institute of Nutrition), and Alfonso León de Garay (founder of the Genetics and Radiobiology Program at the Mexican National Commission of Nuclear Energy). As post-war international agencies and scientific collaboration established new modes of circulation of practices and knowledge, and public health became a priority in development programs (among fears of communism in the poor regions of Latin America), physicians and human geneticists sought to contribute to knowledge on “primitive peoples” and to the standard view of human populations as defined by variations in genetic frequencies. Not all of them, however, succeeded in linking their results with the international networks of knowledge. Paradoxically, it was Lisker´s reliance on a heavily local approach (indigenismo) which accounts for the alignment of his results with international accepted knowledge and practices.

The changing face of (medical) geneticists in Canada (1947-1990)

Bill Leeming (OCAD University, Canada)

This paper explores the close relationship between scientists and physicians in the formation of medical genetics as a medical specialty in Canada. It reviews how the intellectual and specialist movements that supported the use of genetics in clinical settings between 1947 and 1990 were emergent phenomena, created, split, and reconfigured numerous times over the course of four decades. Initially, an elite of geneticist-scientists built career paths through their work in newly established clinical settings for “heredity counselling.” These individuals established highly specialized patterns of work by combining hospital work and teaching posts. They drew a clientele of patients on the basis of personal reputations for specialized expertise in science in a manner that recalls Victor Thompson’s early discussion of “personal specialization.” “Task specialization” (à la Thompson) followed between 1960 and 1990 with counselling and laboratory services becoming standardized and more formal occupational roles and work rules becoming institutionalized across networks of regional genetic service centres. In this context, the paper pays special attention to the use of prolepsis (i.e., use of a rhetorical device by which future events are presumed to have already occurred) to cultivate medical interest in applied human genetics. To be historically accurate, the story of prolepsis in medical genetics precedes the establishment of heredity counselling in clinical settings in the 1940s. Early on, chromosomal theories of heredity were promoted as being likely to produce new clinical tools for identifying persons deemed genetically at risk for disease by linking physical signs and hereditary processes. Nonetheless, genetic explanations of disease causality processes remained on shaky ground in medicine until the 1960s when conceptualizations of recurring patterns of disease in families began to shift from “related by kinship and biological relatedness” to “related to chromosomes and genes.”

Human genetics in Mexico during the Cold War

Ana Barahona (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico)

After WWII human heredity as a medical field (which included population genetics and medical cytogenetics) developed new techniques and practices intended not only to characterize but also to understand variation differences among populations, and their relation to the presence of certain diseases. Human genetics was transformed from a medical backwater to an appealing medical research frontier between 1955 and 1975. It was precisely during the Cold War that scientists hosted, disseminated and consolidated the emerging model of human genetics in the clinic and the field. This paper explores the origins of medical cytogenetic knowledge and practices in the 1960s and 1970s in Mexico, focusing on the work of the group headed by Salvador Armendares, who spent two years in Oxford, England, with human genetics expert Alan C. Stevenson. Upon Armendares’ return from England in 1966, the first Unit for Research in Human Genetics was created at a medical setting, the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social (Mexican Institute of Social Security). Some research projects showed the embeddedness of this unit in both public health policy and medical care, as it tackled the effects of malnutrition on chromosome structure, child mortality, chromosome aberrations and Down syndrome. By posing malnutrition, one of the main concerns of Mexican post-revolutionary governments, as both medical and genetic problem, the unit contributed to positioning cytogenetics as a medical practice and a medical research domain. The focus of this paper will be these set of institutions, physicians, practices and ideas that began to reshape medical genetics in the country. The reconstruction of the early days of cytogenetics in Mexico demonstrates the major roles played by both the clinic and post-revolution public health policies in the origins of medical genetics in Mexico within a global movement to delivering the benefits of scientific knowledge to the general population.