Medicine, Technology, and the Body
in the Late 20th Century

HPS 153/253; History 274/374
Surgery 274; English 309K
Winter 98
Class Meets TTH 3:15-5:05 in Bldg 200, Room 217


Instructors: Timothy Lenoir (History & Philosophy of Science)
Georgene Moldovan (Surgery)
John Bender (English & Comparative Literature)


Beginning in the late 1950s, but accelerating at an ever faster pace by the end of the 90s, technology has dramatically transformed modern medicine. Before World War II the typical physician had a modest toolbox consisting of a thermometer, stethoscope, sphygmomanometer, and occasional access to x-ray machines and electrocardiograph. Along with these medical devices the physician of the 1940s was assisted by a limited cabinet of pharmaceuticals, including the sulfa drugs and penicillin. After the War biological research was transformed through a new armamentarium of biophysics instruments-electron microscopes, ultracentrifuges, mass spectrometers-and new agents such as radioactive isotopes. A revolution in microelectronics and semiconductors initiated during the War together with the development of computers led the way to entire new fields of biomedical imaging such as ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT and PET scanners), nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and with the development of charged couple devices (ccd's), fields such as endoscopic surgery. Massive changes in biomedicine were also prepared by the creation in the 1950s of the new field of molecular biology, as well as by developments in immunology and pharmacology, which enabled, among other things, the development of the birth control pill and radical new ways of intervening in the body, including transplantation of kidneys, hearts, lungs and livers. Further steps in these directions more recently include the prospect of fetal tissue transplantation as a means for treating certain inborn metabolic disorders, and the development of molecular genetics promises genetic therapy as an added technological dimension of the modern medical revolution.

The aim of this course is to examine the thesis that these dramatic new ways of imaging, controlling, intervening, remaking, possibly even choosing bodies have participated in a complete reshaping of the notion of the body in the cultural imaginary and a transformation of our experience of actual human bodies. The history of recent and contemporary medical technology will serve as our material context to explore this thesis about body work using theories of postmodernism, addressing the questions, are there postmodern bodies? and how have they been constructed? Among the themes we will explore is the thesis advanced by Donna Haraway that postmodern bodies are cyborg bodies and that we are all cyborgs. The class will be conducted as a colloquium framed by student presentations related to the course readings.



Syllabus