MUSTS Colloquium with Laura Stark: Building a market for human subjects

Wednesday, June 20, 2018, 15:30-17:00

Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, Grote Gracht 80-82, Attic



Laura Stark

Building a market for human subjects: Total institutions, alternate worlds & the space of the NIH research hospital, 1950-1980



The American medical research industry seemed poised to collapse in the wake of the US civil rights movement because of sudden, sharp restrictions on access to human subjects for medical research. Yet medical research on healthy people continued to expand, eventually taking new organizational form with the rise of Contract Research Organizations. This surprising outcome emerged because a set of private religious organizations during the 1950s aligned with the US National Institutes of Health to produce the legal possibility of a sustained, large-scale civilian market for human subjects and, simultaneously, to create the reality of that market. NIH made novel use of the government ‘procurement contract’ mechanism, and the churches offered a logic of suffering to ‘volunteers’ to make sense of their experiences. Together, they enabled the formal exchange of money for human subjects that anchors medicine in the present day. This history opens up possibilities for rethinking care in medical research and invites critique of current practices beyond the conventional categories of bioethics.



Laura Stark is Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University, Associate Editor of the journal History & Theory, and Advisory Editor for Isis. Stark’s first book, Behind Closed Doors: IRBs and the Making of Ethical Research, was published in 2012 by University of Chicago Press. Her second book, The Normals: A People’s History, explores how a market for healthy civilian “human subjects” emerged in law, science, and everyday imagination. The project traces the production of a moral sensibility and a legal system to enact this market for healthy civilians in the post-World War Two period. It is based on a vernacular archive she created with more than 100 “normal control” research subjects and scientists who took part in postwar experiments at the US National Institutes of Health, now archived at Countway Library for the History of Medicine. Stark is beginning a third book project, Islam through American Eyes: The Life and Culture of Clifford Geertz, which consolidates global sites of science to examine the history of one of the most iconic conceptions of “culture” in the human sciences today: the notion of culture as a “web of meaning.” Overall, Stark’s work uses social theory to map the intersections of science, morality and the modern state in global context.