Monday, January 16, 2012

Dominique Tobbell

Dominique A. Tobbell is Assistant Professor in the Program in the History of Medicine and the Graduate Program in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She is also the oral historian for the University of Minnesota’s Academic Health Center History Project.

Tobbell's new book is Pills, Power, and Policy: The Struggle for Drug Reform in Cold War America and Its Consequences.

Recently I asked her what she was reading. Her reply:
For fun reading over the Christmas break, I read Susan Orlean’s incredible Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. I have always loved German shepherds; I grew up with one in England and am now the proud “parent” of a two-and-a-half old German shepherd with floppy ears. For this reason I couldn’t wait to pick up Susan Orlean’s book, despite the fact that having grown up in England I had never heard of Rin Tin Tin before. As luck would have it, a month before I was given the book as a gift, I had met the current Rin Tin Tin—Rin Tin Tin XII—at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport. Rin Tin Tin XII (or “Smith” as he is called by his family and friends) was about to board a flight to New York City to appear as Rin Tin Tin on a morning television show. I was literally star struck by his appearance at the airport and sheepishly asked if his owner would mind if I took a photo of him (she obliged and handed me one of Rinty’s business card). Needless to say, by the time I finally opened Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend my excitement and my expectations for the book were pretty high. Within a few pages, my expectations had been exceeded and my excitement soon led me to finish the first 100 pages within a couple of short hours. As I avidly read page after page of Orlean’s beautifully written text, it was impossible not to evoke imagines of the war-orphaned puppy rescued by Lee Duncan, a young American soldier, during World War I; of Duncan and Rin Tin Tin traipsing along Hollywood Boulevard, knocking on studio doors looking for a gig for Rinty; and of the heroic movie dog jumping over 12 foot tall walls. Orlean’s heartwarming and gripping descriptions of Rin Tin Tin’s silent movies had me wishing I could see the movies for myself and then, upon reading further in the book that most if not all of the original Rin Tin Tin movies have been destroyed, had me grateful that I had at least Orlean’s descriptions to go by.

Rin Tin Tin is about far more than the life and legend of Rin Tin Tin. It is also a powerful portrayal of the intimate bond that some people develop with their dogs (I include myself in this category). So too it is a fascinating history of the changing place, role, and identity of dogs in American society, and an excursion into the history of American film and television. Orlean conducted extensive archival research for this book, did numerous interviews with people who knew and were touched by Rin Tin Tin, and pursued the history of Rin Tin Tin to a depth any historian would admire. Based on this research, Orlean has crafted a riveting, emotional, evocative, and powerful book that at its heart captures what it is to truly love a dog.

I just finished re-reading an excellent book written by my colleague at the University of Minnesota, Susan Jones: Death in a Small Package: A Short History of Anthrax (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010). Since the book came out last year, I’ve read it at least three times and each time I learn something more from it. Susan Jones is a historian and veterinarian and in this book, both forms of expertise are marshaled as she explains how a ubiquitous agricultural disease became, first, an industrial disease, and later, a biological weapon. To address this question, Jones combines extensive archival material (e.g. the field notebooks and laboratory notebooks of anthrax researchers) with some of the latest scientific knowledge, particularly genetic and epidemiological data about Bacillus anthracis. The primary units of Jones’ analysis then are the microorganism itself, Bacillus anthracis, the disease it causes, anthrax, and the efforts of humans to control both. In particular, Jones’ focuses focus the complex interactions of the disease-causing agent with the human and animal victims of that disease and their environment.

Ultimately, Jones argues that anthrax’s transformation from an agricultural disease to a biological weapon over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries was shaped by social, political, and economic factors (such as the establishment of global trade networks and the imperatives of wartime) and by the biology of Bacillus anthracis (particularly its unique life cycle, where it must kill its host to complete its life cycle, and where, in spore form, it can remain viable for decades—potentially centuries—undisturbed in the soil, resistant to sun, wind, and rain, until it is consumed by a new host and its virulence is reactivated). Moreover, Jones argues that Bacillus anthracis has undergone major changes in its ecology and its evolutionary pattern of development due to its interaction with humans. In particular, Jones contends that as the bacillus was brought into close relationships with human populations—through agricultural practices, through the global trade and manufacture of animal hair products, and through the investigations conducted in the laboratories of the 19th and 20th century—the bacillus became “domesticated.”

Death in a Small Package sits at the intersection of history of science, technology, and medicine, and environmental history. By reading this book, you learn what it was like to do science—specifically bacteriological, epidemiological, and biological weapons research—from the mid-19th century through the late 20th century. You also see clearly the influence that political economy has on the incidence and experience of disease. For example, when during the mid-19th century faster ships, cheaper transport costs, and reduced tariffs on imported goods contributed to increasing the global trade in animal hair products, this corresponded to increased outbreaks of anthrax among British and American mill workers who handled those hair products. In turn, this book highlights the vital role these mill workers played—in collaboration with physicians—in uncovering the cause of the disease from which they were suffering. Arguably the most fascinating aspect of this book is what it teaches us about the influence of military patronage on the development of 20th century science and technology. By the mid-20th century, military-sponsored scientists in Europe, Asia, and the United States realized that Bacillus anthracis could function as a “dual-use agent.” That is, just as research on the microorganism could be used to cure or prevent anthrax, so too could research be used to transform Bacillus anthracis into a powerful and increasingly effective biological weapon. After World War II, biological weapons researchers worked —politically and otherwise—to retain the state or military agency as major patron of their research. During the Cold War era and in the heyday of nuclear weaponization, when the need for biological weapons was less clear, biological weapons researchers sold the work being done in their weapons laboratories as more than just weapons development. They argued these laboratories were also the sites of cutting edge research, particularly in efforts to produce increasingly effective vaccines against anthrax.

Death in a Small Package is masterfully written and is a truly riveting work of history. The final chapter in particular, which examines the use (intentional and otherwise) of weaponized anthrax – in the former USSR in 1979 and in the U.S. letter attacks post-9/11—read like a fast-paced detective novel as scientists, the police, and the FBI worked together to uncover the source of the anthrax and the perpetrator of the crime.
Visit Dominique Tobbell's webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue