Yale University Medical School Research Papers

2017 Prize: Joanna Radin, “Rescaling Colonial Life From the Indigenous to the Alien: The Late 20th Century Search for Human Biological Futures”

“Rescaling Colonial Life From the Indigenous to the Alien: The Late 20th Century Search for Human Biological Futures,“ follows the reach of colonial practices of natural history through genomics and into outer space. The article centers around biochemist and medical anthropologist Baruch Blumberg, who began his career collecting samples from colonial subjects in Surinam and ended it as head of the NASA program in Astrobiology. Joanna Radin’s history traces entwinements of colonial natural history, space exploration, and inductive methods in postwar biological science.

In the paper, Radin explores how frozen colonial pasts operate in the service of biological futures. Radin’s research refigures sample collection, induction and cryogenic suspension as modes of colonial science. Following histories of frozen blood samples collected from indigenous populations in the postwar period, Radin reveals a cryopolitics of “not letting die,” in the service of some future biological development. Radin’s impressive body of work offers unique contributions to the study of Cold War, postcolonial technoscience, genomics, big data, climate history, extinction, science fiction and speculative futures.

Radin deftly weaves a story of postwar scientific method with an account of postcolonial extraction. She shows how a colonial imaginary of frontier exploration and a scientific imaginary of induction, unite in a calling to “discover the unexpected.” Radin depicts Blumberg as a collector of samples, in the mode of a colonial natural historian, for whom the Pacific – and later the world, perhaps the solar system – figured as a living laboratory. Blumberg won the Nobel Prize for his work on Hepatitis B, derived from blood samples of indigenous peoples of the Pacific. As a NASA administrator, Blumberg harnessed a language of “new frontiers” – exploring where no one had yet gone – and language of basic science – seeking the unknown and following curiosity. He imagined a scientific exploration, the extraction and classification of new material, as capital to be realized in some biological future.

Radin elsewhere theorizes the temporalities involved in cryogenics, the freezing of biological matter. In this article, she explores a spatial scaling, from terrestrial colonial outposts to distant planets, from “indigenous human to the alien in biological science.” In keeping with her sensitivity to space and refoldings of the colonial past, Radin ends with a call, via Ursula Le Guin, to stop, turn one’s gaze from a frontier future and look down at one’s own roots.

2017 Burnham Prize Committee: Dana Simmons (chair) and Katja Guenther

Forum for History of Human Science

Read the latest Yale Medicine book review of Professor Joanna Radin's new book: Life on Ice: A History of New Uses for Cold Blood


Students may elect to write their M.D. thesis in the history of medicine. The thesis, like all Yale M.D. theses, is to be based on original research on an aspect of the history of medicine or public health, including attitudes and institutions of the medical profession, medical ethics and policies, the conceptual foundation of the biomedical sciences, the management of health and disease in their cultural and social contexts, or the life of a selected historical actor.

Students are expected to undertake their research in light of extant historical scholarship, which will therefore involve the preparation of a bibliography and the discussion of the readings at prearranged meetings with the thesis advisor. On the basis of this collaborative activity, the student will define the historical questions the thesis will address and develop with his or her advisor an appropriate research strategy.

Research will focus largely on primary works, typically published texts or unpublished manuscript documents, clinical patient records, letters, diaries, and other archival materials. For some theses, students may use films, television, or other visual materials, as well as museum objects and other artifacts or oral interviews.

The model thesis presented to the Section of the History of Medicine should be, with appropriate revisions, suitable for submission for publication in a medical history journal (for example, the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Medical History, Isis, Social History of Medicine), or to any general or specialty medical journal (such as Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, the Archives of Internal Medicine, and Academic Medicine).

Students who wish to explore the possibility of pursuing an M.D. thesis in the Section of the History of Medicine should meet with the Director of Medical Studies for History of Medicine or with any member of the Section of the History of Medicine. The DMS will also provide more specific instructions for preparing the M.D. thesis in History of Medicine, including some of the ways that such historical work differs from scientific papers in the basic and clinical sciences. Funding to support research is available from the Office of Student Research (see the Yale M.D. Thesis Requirement, for more general information) .

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