The Laboratory in the City

The Laboratory in the City: Urbanization, Industrialization, and the Place of Experiment in Nineteenth-Century Physiology

Sven Dierig

Laboratories are not isolated from the world; they have always existed in relation to the space around them. Like universities, museums, hospitals, botanical gardens, and other institutions of scientific research and education, laboratories have been and still are typically located in cities. And both laboratories and cities are subject to change. Using the example of Berlin and the institutionalization of experimental physiology by Emil du Bois-Reymond, this project places the laboratory revolution in physiology in the context of the transformation of urban space in the industrial revolution. This "urban history of physiology" seeks to understand how cities and laboratories "cooperate" in the production of scientific novelty. Emphasis is on the ways in which ongoing changes in urban life and society, industry, economy, and technology permeated the "walls" of physiological workplaces and yielded scientific knowledge. The study is organized topically rather than chronologically. Investigation of three topics - organisms, instruments, and laboratories - illustrates how urban culture and everyday life, urban organization of labor and commerce, and urban power sources and technology extended through the laboratory walls and became part of the social and material culture of experimental investigation.

Organisms: Research fields, experimental setups and instruments in nineteenth-century physiology accreted around model organisms such as frogs, cats, rabbits, and dogs. Assuming that the scientific career of an organism as an experimental tool depends not only on various features of the organism or the techniques employed, the project studies the role of Berlin's weekly markets, zoos, aquariums, urban biotopes, and other urban places in providing physiological research with supplies of experimental organisms.

Instruments: This topic concerns the role of technology in the making of scientific novelty at the time when Berlin became a technological metropolis. Focusing on electrophysiology and the so-called graphical method, the aim is to ask how local conditions lead to substitution of one instrument or experimental setup for another and to unravel the interrelationships between the use of instruments, changes in instruments, and the evolution of urban technology systems: systems of power (water, gas, electricity), systems of transport (horse-drawn carriages, urban railways, electric street cars), and systems of communication (telegraph, telephone).

Laboratories: This focus of the project was inspired by work in the sociology of scientific knowledge showing the laboratory as a specific workplace, designed for the factorylike production of new experimental phenomena. The argument is that laboratories produce knowledge for a scientific market just as factories and their machines produce goods for a consumer market. Stages in the laboratory revolution in physiology in Berlin are analyzed in terms of the evolution from manual work to mass production in the industrializing city.

Funding Institutions