DISCIPLINARY STYLES AND INSTRUMENTAL. INCENTIVES
Evaluating the experimental practice of hormone research, we may conclude that disciplinary styles are an important factor in structuring the laboratory activities of scientists. In the study of sex hormones, each discipline opted for a specific type of test. Obviously, scientists have specific disciplinary interests with regard to certain test methods. The choice of standard tests can therefore also be understood in terms of the influx of disciplines in a particular episode in the study of sex hormones. For female sex hormones, the uterus test (introduced by gynecologists) was supplemented by a whole series of tests from the moment that laboratory scientists (and physiologists in particular) became involved in the study of sex hormones. In the ultimate choice of a standard test, the laboratory scientists—and not the gynecologists —were the leading experts. With the influx of the biochemists, chemical testing methods began to be used in the study of sex hormones.
Not only did disciplinary styles structure the choice of specific testing methods, but also the aims of the tests were discipline – and actor-specific. Throughout the years, the test methods have served different purposes in the study of sex hormones. Biologists as well as gynecologists used tests for two purposes: as a specific tool for sex labeling and as a tool to investigate the function of sex hormones. The pharmaceutical industry applied test methods merely to control the quality of hormone preparations. The biochemists used tests in order to isolate, identify and finally synthesize sex hormones. Biochemists made sex hormones into substances independent from the biological test methods in which they were shaped.
Disciplinary perspectives are thus a major factor in structuring the activities in the laboratory. Scientists operate according to the traditions of their fields. But are disciplinary styles the only factor that guide scientists in their daily practice? A closer look at the history of the measuring of sex hormones reveals that the actual choice of the test methods has been the result of instrumental as much as disciplinary considerations.
In measuring female sex hormones, instrumental incentives played a major role in the decision about which test would be considered most appropriate. In Allen’s Sex and Internal Secretions, Reuben G. Gustavson (1939), a professor of chemistry at the University of Colorado, emphasized the fact that, compared with the other tests, the vaginal smear test had the advantage of being rapid and inexpensive. The uterus test and most other test methods were based on time-consuming surgical interventions in experimental animals, a rather expensive matter because each new experiment required the use of new animals (Frank 1929:887).6 In this respect the vaginal smear test was considered to be rather revolutionary, because it enabled researchers to infer what was happening in the internal reproductive organs without having to perform surgery. As mentioned above, this test procedure consisted of tracing cytological changes in the reproductive tract during the estrus cycle, changes that extended also to the lower part of the vagina (Corner 1965:12). In early experiments, Charles Stockard and George Papanicolaou, both zoologists at Cornell Medical College in New York City, had suggested that these cyclic changes should cease upon removal of the ovary and could be restored in the ovariectomized animal by the injection of ovarian preparations (Moore and Price 1932:893). The cytological changes of the vagina could thus be determined by examining smears of easily accessible cells under the microscope. The color reaction test introduced by the biochemists also became widely used because this method was at least as accurate and convenient as the biological assay method and was even less time-consuming.
The choice of test methods for male sex hormones shows a similar pattern. In addition to disciplinary styles, instrumental considerations were of major importance in structuring the measuring of male sex hormones. The wide range of tests introduced by physiologists (like change in fat deposition, body length and weight, and hair growth) were considered not very convenient for routine use. The major disadvantage of these tests was that these functions and characteristics did not respond rapidly to castration or hormone treatment. The comb test also had practical disadvantages. The very choice of this test was one of the reasons why research on male sex hormones did not become current as fast as research on female sex hormones. It can easily be imagined that the keeping of roosters is rather inconvenient, particularly since most laboratories at that time had only limited space. Despite this disadvantage, the comb test was considered to be a rather convenient assay method because the test animals could be used several times and changes in the size of the comb could be detected easily (Tausk 1932a:50). The test procedure consisted of measuring comb size in castrated roosters before and after hormone treatment (Figure 3.1). Laqueur and his co-workers at the University of Amsterdam introduced a photographic method in which the silhouette of the comb was photographed and changes in the comb size could be easily recorded (Frank 1929:807-808).
The practical disadvantages of these tests led American scientists to introduce other testing methods for male sex hormones. Carl Moore and Dorothy Price, both zoologists from Chicago, suggested that tests involving the reproductive accessory organs of male rats, mice and guinea-pigs were most practical, because the effects of testes preparations could be seen within a reasonable length of time. One of these tests was based on the growth of
Figure 3.1 One of the standard tests for male sex hormones: the measurement of the comb size in castrated roosters before and after hormone treatment
seminal vesicles in castrated mice and rats. The seminal vesicles test involved recording the weight of the seminal vesicles in castrated animals before and after administration of testes extracts (Koch 1939:817). In addition to being a rather rapid test, this method also had the advantage that rats and mice could be kept much more easily than roosters.
In addition to the comb test, the seminal vesicles test became widely used and accepted as a standard test. In Allen’s Sex and Internal Secretions male sex hormones are defined as “those substances, inducing the growth of the comb of castrated roosters as well as the growth of seminal vesicles in rats and mice” (Gustavson 1939:877).
The actual choice of the standard biological test for sex hormones was thus also the result of instrumental incentives. In daily practice, scientists preferred those assays that were both easy to perform and inexpensive. Timeconsuming tests, like assays using the feathers of poultry, were less suitable as daily routine procedures than tests on mice and rats, in which the effects of hormone administration could be detected within a short period of time. Obviously, these peculiarities of daily practices in the laboratory are a major factor in structuring the activities and choices of scientists.
With the choice of standard test methods, scientists defined the nature of what had to be considered as male or female sex hormones. It is significant that in this process of sorting out the specific tests for sex hormones, all functions and processes that were unrelated to sexual characteristics and reproduction were dropped. The testing methods that became accepted as standard tests for sex hormones were based not on muscular activity or body weight, but on internal sexual organs (vagina and seminal vesicles) and on a so-called secondary sexual characteristic (the comb of the rooster). In this way, scientists attributed to the substances they had just isolated, and which they had named sex hormones, the properties predicted by the biological paradigm in which sex hormones were denned as the chemical messengers of masculinity and femininity. Consequently, female sex hormones became related to female sexual organs and male sex hormones to male sexual organs and characteristics.
Although the process of testing confirmed major assumptions underlying the conceptualization of sex hormones, at the same time it challenged other key assumptions about the “nature” of sex hormones. I described in Chapter 2 how sex endocrinologists in their experiments dropped the idea that there existed just one single hormone per sex. The test methods also played a major role in rejecting the idea of the sexual specificity of sex hormones, as described in Chapter 2. In the debate about the sex specific origin and function of sex hormones, scientists based their arguments largely on the results of their tests. Experiments thus functioned as major devices in establishing as well as changing the paradigm of sex endocrinology.