The making of sex hormones
In 1934, a cargo train arrived at the grounds of the Dutch pharmaceutical company Organon. This train did not carry any conventional cargo such as coal, or instrumental equipment, but a rather extraordinary load: thousands of liters of urine. In the Dutch countryside, horse owners could sell the liquid waste products of their mares for prices equal to the price of cows’ milk. In the mean time, people living near the site of Organon complained about a very peculiar, unpleasant smell that penetrated their houses. Elsewhere in Europe and in the United States, scientists visited slaughterhouses to collect organic remains. In Britain, scientists ordered the delivery of a blue whale to their laboratories. What was happening? What connects these, at first sight, separate events? The collection, selling and transport of urine, the search for remains from slaughterhouses and the ordering of a whale were all aimed at the same goal: the production of sex hormones. The making of sex hormones into material realities required the availibility of tons of ovaries and testes, as well as millions of liters of urine.
In the previous chapter we saw how scientists used test methods to identify, isolate and finally to synthesize chemical substances which they labeled as male and female sex hormones. This chapter analyzes another major material condition for the creation of sex hormones: the role of research materials. The major location featuring in the previous chapters was the laboratory. In the making of sex hormones into chemicals, other settings became increasingly important in structuring the hormonal enterprise. In order to obtain the required research materials, scientists were largely dependent on arrangements with institutions outside the laboratory: the clinic and the pharmaceutical industry.
These arrangements highlight a very crucial feature in the development of scientific research. The production of scientific facts and artefacts obviously does not take place in isolated laboratories by individual scientists. Recent constructivist science studies hold that, to make science work, scientists have to leave their laboratories and create alliances with other relevant social groups. (Bijker 1993; Pinch and Bijker 1987) This chapter explores how scientists made sex hormones into artefacts. I describe how sex endocrinologists created networks with the pharmaceutical industry and the
clinic in order to organize the material conditions necessary for their research. The deceptively simple question—which research materials did scientists use in the making of sex hormones?—thus leads us into a much more complex analysis of how science works. How do laboratory scientists, clinicians and pharmaceutical entrepreneurs come together as major groups in the hormonal endeavor? What type of alliances did they create? What bound them together? How did the subject of sex hormones evolve into a mutually shared topic of interest among laboratory scientists, clinicians and pharmaceutical companies?
To answer these questions, we follow the different groups involved in the making of sex hormones in their efforts to gain access to the required research materials, focussing particularly on Dutch sex endocrinologists. I describe how the accessibility of research materials affected both the character of the relationships between the laboratory, the clinic and the pharmaceutical company, and the strategic position of each group involved in these networks. The chapter proceeds to analyze how the access to research materials affected the research agenda in the emerging field of sex endocrinology. These materials were not just a resource, but functioned as carriers of knowledge claims, facilitating a situation in which the study of female sex hormones, and not male sex hormones, gradually developed into big science and big business.
GAINING ACCESS TO RESEARCH MATERIALS
The role of research materials in scientific research seems quite evident. Scientists need research materials in order to study their topics of interest. Day-to-day practices in the laboratory consist in large measure of obtaining and managing research materials. Problems in the supply of research materials might present major constraints to scientists’ activities. If scientists do not manage to obtain the required materials, they simply cannot work. Research materials are thus an important practical resource for the production of knowledge.
Problems in gaining access to research materials seem to have been particularly manifest in the life sciences at the turn of the century. Scientific research in this period was characterized by a shift from descriptive, morphological approaches to experimental approaches. The new experimental approaches radically altered scientists’ needs for research materials (Clarke 1987b). The need for new types of research materials is very evident in the field of sex endocrinology. Scientists entering this field had to have access to research materials not yet routinely used in the laboratory: ovaries and testes.
How did sex endocrinologists gain access to these rather unfamiliar materials? A perusal of the scientific literature reveals that the search for gonads was not easy. The reports of sex endocrinologists are filled with complaints about the scarcity of ovaries and testes. These complaints seem to have been particularly loud in the 1920s. What was happening at that time? By the 1920s, scientists were confronted with a specific handicap— namely, the problem of how to obtain adequate quantities of the research materials required for the preparation of gonadal extracts. Previous research had been focussed solely on the biological function of gonadal extracts. Relatively small amounts of raw material were required for these experiments. One kilogram of testes was sufficient to study the effects of gonadal extracts in the organism.
Prior to the 1920s, the groups involved in the study of sex hormones had no serious problems in obtaining access to the required research materials. Gynecologists obtained research materials from then” own patients. Since the 1870s surgical operations for the removal of human ovaries had become common practice in gynecology, and consequently gynecologists had easy access to the research materials required for their experiments. Later, the placenta and annual ovaries were also used as research materials (Corner 1965:4, 10). Physiologists were able to perform their experiments in continuation of the tradition in laboratory practice, applying materials that came into general use in the last decades of the century. Of particular importance was the introduction of laboratory animals like guinea-pigs and rabbits, and somewhat later, mice and rats, which became the major subjects in their experiments to study the role of the ovaries and testes. The third group in the emerging field of sex hormones found it somewhat more difficult to gain access to research materials.1 The pharmaceutical industry had no tradition or practice to lean on, so it had to make other arrangements. To obtain the material they needed for the production of testis and ovary preparations, pharmaceutical companies entered into contracts with local slaughterhouses to guarantee a steady supply of animal glands—organic matter that was not used for the production of food.
In this early period, the activities of the three groups involved in research on sex hormones did not interfere with one another. Every individual in these groups interested in the subject of sex hormones could enter the field and perform experiments without assistance or interference from other groups. In the early 1920s, however, the central focus in research shifted from the biological function to the chemical isolation and identification of sex hormones (Clarke 1985:390). Unfortunately, the active substances scientists were seeking so desperately happened to occur only in small amounts in masses of inert matter (Parkes 1966). To obtain pure extracts, sex endocrinologists had to use tons of gonads. Gynecologists and laboratory scientists now had to devote much of their time to the search for large supplies of gonadal material. To understand how the three groups gradually became more and more dependent on one another, we can trace how they succeeded in meeting this new need.
Some scientists were very creative in finding a solution to the problem of obtaining large quantities of research materials. Alan Parkes, a physiologist at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, described how— thanks to the intervention of the British Museum—he was able to obtain ovaries from the southern blue whale. This enormous creature, weighing up to 70 tons, has correspondingly large ovaries: “a splendid opportunity of obtaining gonadal tissue in bulk.” Unfortunately, a great deal of the precious material was lost because of bad preservation (Parkes 1985:128). Similarly, Dutch scientists considered the use of whales’ testes.
Because whales do not habitually swim near laboratories in the western world, this source was not a structural solution to the problem of scarcity. To gain access to the enormous quantities of required material, scientists had to create new infrastructural arrangements to secure a steady supply of organic matter. The previous arrangements in the laboratory and the clinic were no longer sufficient. To find access to research materials, laboratory scientists and gynecologists had to leave their laboratories and clinics. The most likely places where large quantities of ovaries and testes could be obtained were the slaughterhouses.2
This supply, however, was not equally accessible to all the groups involved in research on sex hormones. In this period the role of the pharmaceutical industry in the emerging field of sex endocrinology changed drastically. In the previous chapters, gynecologists and laboratory scientists were the major actors. Research on sex hormones was mainly located inside the laboratory and the clinic. In the making of sex hormones we see how the pharmaceutical industry became increasingly important in structuring the development of the study of sex hormones. We have seen how the pharmaceutical companies had already contracted with local slaughterhouses for the delivery of organic material, thus gaining control over an essential source of research materials. With these contracts, the pharmaceutical companies almost entirely blocked the access of others to this resource. Scientists often found pharmaceutical concerns to be their competitors in this quest. The American biochemist Edward Doisy described how he had to obtain permission from a pharmaceutical company to purchase ovaries, because this company had a contract with the local packing plant (Doisy 1972). To gain access to the supply of gonads present in slaughterhouses, gynecologists and laboratory scientists had to ally themselves with the pharmaceutical companies. Both in Germany and the United States, gynecologists and laboratory scientists created networks with pharmaceutical companies connected to slaughter-houses, thus guaranteeing a steady supply of gonadal material (Tausk 1978:29-32).