Mike Sappol: "Endangered specimens: Medico-historical collections and human biomaterial: Competing ethical claims, narratives, critiques, practices"

  • Date: –15:00
  • Location: Engelska parken 6-3025 (Rausing Room)
  • Organiser: Department of History of Science and Ideas
  • Contact person: Hanna Hodacs
  • Seminarium

Higher Seminar in the History of Science and Ideas

Research presentation by Mike Sappol, Uppsala University.


Our medical museums are in crisis. Administrators don’t love them; critics vilify them. There are calls to disperse, repatriate or destroy the old specimens, or to drastically restrict access. The fetuses, skulls, tumors and slices — obtained long before there were any protocols of informed consent — are increasingly the targets of a symbolic politics that mixes moral outrage with a reflexive condemnation of voyeurism and objectification.

The specimens show difficult things — dissected-out structures, malformations, and the terrible work that disease, decay, violence and accident do to us. And wonderful things — the work of biomedical science and the healing professions over the centuries. But also carelessness, abuse, exploitation and elitism. It’s an ambivalent, ambiguous legacy. Hard to see, hard to look away from. Current bioethical protocols dictate that we should no longer make and collect such things. And we no longer need to. So what moral calculus should obtain in the consideration of historical medical collections? What are they good for? Why do we care? How should we treat them?

Focusing on the objects of Padua’s Museo Morgagni, this paper works through some arguments for and against the preservation and exhibition of historical medical collections and their human biomaterials. It lands with the principle of public ownership and an ethos of open-access stewardship. The specimens, it argues, are not just “human remains”, but artifacts, valuable relics of the history of medicine, science, and embodied human experience. The medical museum, it turns out, is an idiosyncratic and uniquely valuable archive of nation, colonialism, capitalism, race, gender, social class, disability and difference. And something unaccountable that exceeds all of those categories…. Our historical medical collections, and their specimens, are endangered. It would be a shame to lose them.

Note: This talk presents photographic images of a special category of historical objects: embryological, fetal, post-natal, post-mortem human remains and materials made into anatomical / pathological specimens.

Photograph: Mike Sappol

The seminar will be held in English.