Encountering Hermes in the Unknown

Encountering Hermes in the Unknown: Exploring Experimental Vitamin Research during World War I

Robyn Smith

Despite the practical knowledge throughout the nineteenth century that citrus fruit prevented and cured scurvy, and that rickets and beriberi were diseases caused by poor diet, it was not until 1906 that animal feeding experiments led investigators to propose the existence of "accessory food factors," a lack of which was determined to be the cause of some illnesses. By the close of 1913 two American laboratories had determined that there was indeed present in food at least one "accessory food factor," or "vitamine" as it was being called increasingly, and that it was an organic catalyst. The "discovery of the organic" rendered the problem of the vitamin as a problem of a regulatory function. With the outbreak of World War I, vitamin research became a focus of activity for British biochemistry. Within this context, vitamins’ regulatory function was conceived of as providing harmony, or balance, to nutritive metabolism and the concept developed into a Hermes figure (Hopkins 1922; Lusk 1914; Lusk 1918; League of Nations 1936; 1937). Significantly, by the end of the war the chemical nature of the accessory food factor(s) was still unknown and yet the formulation of the problem had been developed and elaborated. This research project was animated by the following problem: What experimental practices supported the scientists’ encounter with the unknown and how did these same practices facilitate the elaboration of the problem of the vitamins as a problem of harmony and balance in diet? Further, how did the vitamin concept develop as a Hermes figure within the context of British biochemistry during WWI?

Robyn Smith's research was generated at the intersection of two different approaches in the history of science. First, histories of science concerned to account for the emergence of new scientific objects analyze the historical record for the scientific practices by which scientists solicit novelty and aim at producing the future (Pickering 1995; Rheinberger 1992; 1993; 1995; 2001). Second, Canguilhem’s historical epistemology, as a philosophy of problems, is useful to the history of the life sciences as it enables us to account for the “internal characteristics and conditions” of the problems of the life sciences (Canguilhem 1991; 1993; Deleuze 1994: 323). Robyn Smith's work developed an account of the ontological and epistemological conditions of the scientists’ encounter with the unknown and the increasingly refined problem of the accessory food factors.

The site for Smith's research was the collaborative research efforts of British scientists through committees for accessory food factor research as organized by the British government throughout the First World War. Accessory food factor research was taken up in a significant way in the UK in 1914 when the British government gave high political priority to questions of food supply and the quality of military and civilian diet (Kamminga 1998: 83). The Medical Research Committee (MRC), the Royal Society and the Lister Institute established themselves as hubs for networks of scientists working on problems of food supply and healthy diet (Kamminga 1998: 83). While the social and political relations at the time informed the establishment of scientific research networks, the scientific importance of accessory food factor research in turn informed the government policy concerning food research and accessory food factors became an increasingly central component of Britain’s war-time scientific research into food supply and nutrition (Kamminga 1998: 84). Smith suggested that within the context of government sponsored war research, British researchers saw the problem of accessory food factors expand suddenly. No longer could the problem be simply the physiological function of the accessory food factors in individual animals. Rather, the problem became one of population health and food supply as means to meet various international and national nutritional needs.

The Royal Society, the MRC, and the Lister Institute all have archives of minute books and papers of food research committees at work during the First World War. Smith used these records to both gather data and to outline a set of individual scientist’s archival records, which were also explores. This project also engaged with data collected during Smith's dissertation research but that went beyond the scope of that project. This research enabled an extension of Smith's analysis of vitamins by following their increasing stability as scientific objects within the biochemistry community and their movement into larger public health networks. In line with the research problem outlined above she asked: How did the materiality of the experimental systems enable scientists to encounter the unknown? Through what practices, experimental and social, were scientists able to elaborate and develop their understanding of the problem of the accessory food factors? How did particular practices originate and continue as epistemic practices? What was the order of conceptual progress? What was the course of critical correction in accessory food factor research?

 

Funding Institutions

Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada