I’m often tempted, when researching the history of science, to focus on experiments that seem, today, to have been odd or unusual. This is not a helpful approach. It can belittle the scientific understandings of the past and reinforce the simplistic story that ideas inexorably improve over time. Despite this, recently I found myself giving in to temptation when reading the annual reports of the Harcourt Butler Institute of Public Health, which was set up in Rangoon in 1926 and was the first institute in Burma dedicated to conducting laboratory-based medical research.
Two experiments immediately jumped out at me. One attempted to destroy anopheline mosquito larvae with explosives. In a tank that was about 200 yards long, 6 feet deep and 50 years at its widest point, located in the institute’s grounds, several attempts were made. The first involved a small amount of explosives submerged just a foot beneath the water’s surface. The water bubbled up, but the larvae and fish inhabiting the tank were undisturbed. Then larger explosives were detonated at a depth of 3 feet. The explosion was much greater, but the larvae and fish were again unharmed. The amounts of explosive were increased again. The results were the same. Finally, four cartridges of dynamite of an ounce each were detonated together causing water to spurt 20 feet into the air and the ground to shake as far as 75 feet from the tank. This time a few fish were killed, but again the larvae was unaffected. The institute’s Director speculated that the tank was probably to shallow to produce enough lateral force to damage the larvae.
The second experiment that caught my attention was into the jumping power of rats. Rats were one of the primary focuses of the institute’s work because they were recognised to be vectors of bubonic plague. The institute was also carrying out an extensive rat and flea survey in Rangoon to map the different types of both creatures across the city. The immediate public health benefit of experiments to determine the jumping power of rats, however, were not laid out in the report. Perhaps it was hoped that the results would feed into architectural design or urban planning. An especially designed building was constructed for the investigations and results were forthcoming into the jumping power of bandicoots. Rattus Rattus was more tricky. Rather than directly jumping for the food, they found easier routes. Plasticine was softly plastered on the room’s surfaces to detect the animals’ prints. It was quickly apparent the building would have to be redesigned to frustrate these alternative means of reaching the food. Instead of measuring jumping power, it became an experiment into how to make rats jump at all.
Rather than treating these two experiments as slightly odd examples of now-dated scientific practice, I think they suggest something more general about the non-human in the laboratory. In both cases, the non-human entities being experimented on were able to frustrate medical scientists. Their behaviours and material nature meant that researchers had to go back to the drawing board and redesign their apparatus, both the tank and the jumping room. Non-human creatures were not mere objects to be manipulated within the colonial laboratory, they were active, resilient actors to be reckoned with.