Of rats and men (of science)

Rat guillotine

In cleaning up the dusty shelves of the Copenhagen University’s health science department, a team of Danish researchers that investigate the history of biomedicine’s material culture dug up this intriguing and slightly morbid instrument. The ‘home-made’ guillotine was used to prepare laboratory rat samples for examination, or to dispose them after they had paid their short and inglorious service to scientific research. (A marvellous image, this bent stainless steel covered with fingerprints).

The instrument is by no means unique according to some – the devices are “still sold commercially and […] they can be found in virtually every pharmaceutical company’s laboratory and in many hospital laboratories”, yet thus far these corners of the lab have remained s haded within Science and Technology Studies. Perhaps anthropologists of science routinely closed their notebooks and switched off their recorders at this point. Perhaps they had already taken off their white coat and anxiously followed the lab worker to her pc to see how she would now arrange her hard-won data. It leaves a sobering image of some of science studies’ realizations: hasn’t it in some cases reinforced rather than challenged the standard and popular image of a sterile, cold and clean practice. Where are its mechanics repairing (and calibrating) the equipment and where are the early-morning cleaners? When can animal objects be disposed off, because they have changed from scientific object into biochemical waste?

On another line of thought, the guillotine captivatingly illustrates the disturbance of a relation between the rats and scientists, and more broadly between rats and men. A friend and colleague, Koen Beumer, has recently published a fine article on these relations. He demonstrates how over the past century the rat underwent various translations, from being venomous gutter dirt to becoming a pet and much-appreciated laboratory technology. It is an ambiguity that struck also poet, broadcaster and author Ramsey Nasr, who during a recent field trip to Tanzania found rats to be redefined and re-drawn multiple times. If to some they were pets, to others they distributed diseases, and while to biology students they were objects of dissection and living databases, to an NGO in the neighbourhood they were most useful alive, to be trained to detect diseases or landmines. The appearance of the rat in these instances as a blank canvas on which to project its meaning may be taken to support what Beumer distinguishes as a process of domestication, and the fascinating figure of a rat guillotine as its ultimate expression.

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