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

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TUESDAY, JULY 7  /  17:30 - 19:00  /  DS-M320
Organized session / standard talks
Industrializing reproduction

Jesse Olszynko-Gryn (University of Cambridge, United Kingdom)

This panel will explore the biomedical industries and commercial markets of human and animal reproduction in postwar America and Britain. By focusing on the relationships between key service industries, technologies and fields of biological knowledge, the panel will chart the establishment, stabilisation and maintenance of new markets for sperm cryopreservation, pregnancy testing, and infertility treatment as they emerged especially in the latter half the 20th century. Building on the sociological approach launched by Adele Clarke’s Disciplining Reproduction (1998) as well as recent calls by David Edgerton, Jean-Paul Gaudillière and others to follow the money and take seriously the business of science, technology and medicine, the panel will reexamine a crucial period in the making of a distinctively reproductive biomedical industry and interrogate divergences between American and British trajectories. Beyond reproduction, it will also reflect on the more general themes of refrigeration, home diagnostics and the biology of aging.

Cold collaborations: Sperm cryopreservation and refrigeration in the lab, farm, and clinic (1938-1968)

Bridget Gurtler (Princeton University, United States)

This paper examines the scientific networks that were integral to the development of the first widely used cryoprotectant substances and refrigeration methods in reproductive medicine. It will investigate how technical problems of cell rupture, death, and storage were solved not only across the human and animal sciences but also across national and industrial divides. Focusing on three key laboratories—the National Institute for Medical Research Laboratory in London, The Rock Reproductive Clinic at Harvard Medical School, and the experimental laboratory of the Linde Division of Union Carbide Company—the paper will show how actors in clinical medicine, experimental biology, and the industrial gas industry cooperated to freeze and store human and animal sperm. Tracing how the initial cryopreservation materials (glycerol, human breast milk, and egg yolk) were tested and attained and how industrial Cold War politics facilitated the transition from dry-ice to liquid nitrogen vapor as cryogenic liquids this paper will reveal that the birth of modern sperm banking (both human and agricultural) could not have emerged without a unique collaboration of resources, knowledge, and personnel across these varied fields.

“As simple as buying a lipstick”? The market for pregnancy testing in Britain (1965-1988)

Jesse Olszynko-Gryn (University of Cambridge, United Kingdom)

Rivalled perhaps only by the thermometer, today’s home pregnancy tests are extraordinarily successful retail products. Technologies of fetal testing and imaging have become embroiled in public debates over abortion and designer babies and so attracted much scholarly attention. Yet, although pregnancy tests have transformed the experience of pregnancy as much as ultrasound or amniocentesis, little is known of their history. Seemingly innocuous devices, pregnancy tests allow us to explore new aspects of big stories in biomedicine, reproduction, and consumerism. In this paper I will examine the transition of pregnancy testing from a commercial laboratory service in the 1960s to a retail product in the 1970s and 1980s. By examining how the British market was cultivated first by Organon’s Predictor, Britain’s first home pregnancy test, and then by Unipath’s Clearblue, the most successful such product to date, I will recover the shifting balance of power over early pregnancy knowledge from doctors and laboratories to pharmacists and consumers.

Buying time: The infertility industry and the biology of reproductive aging (1978-2000)

Jenna Healey (Yale University, United States)

When in vitro fertilization (IVF) was first introduced into clinical practice in 1978, patient demand overwhelmed the handful of clinics experimenting with the procedure. In response, clinics enforced strict age limits in order to optimize patient outcomes and shorten waiting lists. Physicians justified these age limits by pointing to clinical observations about the decline of human fertility with age. Potential patients challenged these restrictions, however, even lying about their age in order to gain access. By the end of the 1980s patient pressure, along with the proliferation of the number of clinics offering infertility service, resulted in the extension or elimination of age limits for IVF. In turn, this expansion of the patient population provided physicians with an unprecedented opportunity to study the relationship between aging and fertility. This paper examines the interplay between the emergence of the infertility industry during the 1980s and the development of biological knowledge about aging, fertility, and the human reproductive system. I argue that the expansion of the commercial IVF industry, especially in the United States, provided physicians with both a patient population suitable for studying reproductive aging and the technical means to do so. Technologies such as embryo cryopreservation, human embryo transfer, and oocyte donation allowed researchers to learn more about the mechanisms of reproductive aging than ever before. Although these technologies were not originally developed to combat reproductive aging, the combination of patient demand and the potential for profit led to experimentation within the unregulated industry. By the early 1990s, oocyte donation was being used with success in women up to 50 years old, sparking a debate about the ethics of using reproductive technologies to extend reproductive life.