Collateral Killing: Humans, Rodents, and the Making of the Life Sciences in China, 1940-1980

Peter Braden

Peter Braden is one of the Consortium's 2023-2024 Emanuel Fellow. He holds a Ph.D. from the Department of History at the University of California-San Diego and is a lecturer at the University of Michigan.

I am grateful to hold an Emanuel Fellowship from the Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine. As a fulltime lecturer and non-tenure-track employee of the University of Michigan, the generous support of the Consortium has allowed me to do original research and writing for my second book project. The Consortium’s dynamic online speaker series has also helped me to stay informed about exciting scholarship in the history of science in regions and time periods far removed from my own specialty, modern China. Finally, as a person with a disability, funding from the Consortium has reduced the stress of paying for specialist visits and prescriptions that are not covered by my insurance plan. This financial buffer allows me to devote my mental energy to scholarship.

My most important research accomplishment in the fellowship period so far has been the research and writing of a chapter from my second major monograph, titled Collateral Killing: Rodents, Humans, and Plague in the Making of the Life Sciences in Modern China. The chapter is called “The Rodent Revolution in Chinese Medicine: 1920-1980.” Using Chinese materials including archival documents, printed collections, memoirs, and literature, as well as contemporary literature on rodent physiology and behavior, I show how intelligent, nonhuman beings experienced their roles in the production of both drug molecules and medical knowledge. In response to the Manchurian Plague of 1910-1911, Chinese hygiene authorities set up their country’s first specialized institute for producing sera and vaccines: the National Epidemic Prevention Bureau (NEPB). Through decades of civil strife, foreign invasion, and economic revolution, NEPB researchers raised lab animals on a large scale. Organs and tissues including blood, brain, and kidneys from these “sentient drug factories” were essential sources of biologics and vaccines that saved hundreds of thousands of human lives. During the Vietnam War, lab animals were used in the testing and formulation of antimalarial drug combinations.

This work advances our understanding of the history of science and medicine in several ways. First, I expand the scope of analysis beyond the conventional focus on doctors and patients, to include the intelligent nonhuman animals who contributed to medical treatment. Due to their high value as medical commodities, researchers protected and catered to the tiny populations of lab animals with ample diets and climate-controlled housing. This special treatment continued even during times such as the Great Leap famine of the late 1950s-1960s, during which millions of people suffered from hunger and cold. Additionally, I suggest that the present era of intensive lab animal usage marks a relatively brief interlude in the production of drugs and medical knowledge. Before the NEPB and other lab animal breeding programs, medicinal practitioners drew upon the textually codified body of knowledge called Traditional Chinese Medicine. Most drugs were derived from plant and animal tissues, farmed or wild. Now, like their Western peers, Chinese researchers are rapidly adopting alternative methods of drug production and testing, using genetically modified bacteria and yeasts to produce biologics, and screening drugs for efficacy and toxicity using artificial intelligence and organoids. The lab animal program of the twentieth century stands out as a transitional period between testing and producing drugs using ancient texts and medicinal herbs, and using digital technologies to accomplish similar goals.

In the remainder of my fellowship, I will write my next chapter on the persistence of DDT and other toxins in the landscapes of Northern China after the vast and intensive chemical attacks on diseases and their animal vectors. An earlier chapter showed the Japanese Army “outsourcing agency” to bacteria such as the plague for use in biological warfare. This next chapter shows the government of the People’s Republic outsourcing its own lethal agency to durable chemical compounds. Both militarized bacteria and pesticides lingered in landscapes long after their original application, with dire effects for humans and other life forms.

During my fellowship, I have published three articles on innovative teaching techniques in Education About Asia and Agricultural History. Two pieces suggest ways for instructors to use graphic novels to help high school and college students learn about the Second World War and refugee crises, while also examining the formation of historical narratives and collective memories. Another piece explains my methods for teaching about the consumption and production of rice in East Asia, based on a course I am offering at the University of Michigan this semester. In addition, I have had a paper on Chinese weather control accepted for publication in East Asian Science, Technology and Society (EASTS), a premier STS journal. Finally, my paper on forestry and soil conservation is under review for publication in an edited volume from Stanford University Press on the environmental history of the Mao period.

Additionally, I wish to acknowledge the excellent online working groups. Among many other useful talks, I have benefitted from Samuel Dolbee’s work on Ottoman locusts, and from Mary Augusta Brazelton’s research on Chinese medical students in prewar France. This series, with its many well-tailored disciplinary subgroups, is a valuable scholarly community. It is especially helpful for researchers who do not have a formal, long-term departmental affiliation.

My research has been inspired by my  experience managing a chronic health condition, the auto-immune disorder called ulcerative colitis, which is due to imbalances of bacteria and fungi in the intestinal microbiome. I am a multispecies assemblage of cells that do not share my DNA, but substantially affect my daily life, including mental health, metabolism, and vigor. Moving from the scale of an individual human to society at large, our “human” civilizations are also multispecies enterprises, in which nonhuman subjects play outsized roles. Both my first research project on bovines, and my current project on rodents, reflect my commitment to exploring the more-than-human nature of politics, technology, and medicine. I study nonhumans not as passive objects for humans to act upon, but as beings with meaningful experiences and agendas of their own.

The support of the Consortium’s Emanuel Fellowship for independent scholars has allowed me to focus greater attention on my intellectual pursuits. For the past six months, I have not worried about being able to afford healthcare. My health insurance is precarious, as I am not a tenure-stream faculty member. The comparison with my time in graduate school, when my resources were even more limited, is remarkable. I am most appreciative of the Emanuel Fellowship, and more committed than ever to producing a book that will be stimulating and useful to students and scholars of scientific and medical history.