Karen A. Rader. Making Mice: Standardizing Animals for American Biomedical Research, 1900–1955. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2004, pp. 312, Price $45.00 £29.95. Hardbound. ISBN 0-691-01636-4.
Jim Griesemer and I wrote an essay review of Karen Rader’s book on C. C. Little and the Jackson Laboratory (JAX). Little (1888 - 1971) was a mammalian geneticist who started out to use pure-bred strains of mice as a means to study cancer. He founded the Jackson Memorial Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1929, with the sponsorship of automobile magnate Roscoe B. Jackson. The Laboratory faced several financial crises over the years (Jackson’s early death, the Depression, changing sponsor policies), and survived each time by expanding the market for its specialized mice. The Laboratory has thus grown to become a major supplier of specialized mouse strains for research. Rader’s book focuses on an important part of this story, the development of standardized strains of mice.
Little’s achievement was to develop an organization that could develop and produce large numbers of standard, i.e., pure-bred, mice to serve as raw material in research studies. The problem here is scale. It isn’t enough merely to produce a genetically homogeneous line of mice; the mice have to be produced in volume and shipped around the nation to many customer laboratories. The characteristics of the mice have to be authenticated, and the character of the line has to be maintained. All this requires an industrial-scale organization to breed, feed, and care for many thousands of mice in multiple specialized lines. Quarters must be reliable, diets must be homogeneous, disease must be prevented, breeding must be closely supervised, and all of this must be accomplished with an eye on the budget.
In our review, Jim and I faulted Rader for not relying more heavily on comparative analysis, and for not showing us more of the technical aspects of the problem of mass breeding and the way it articulates with the research programs it supplies. A comparison with other sorts of mass production projects in the wider economy would also be extremely interesting. This of course would have been far beyond the scope of Rader’s study, and she can’t really be faulted for not providing it. But I can’t help but wonder if Little’s connections with the automobile industry gave him something more than access to wealthy patrons. Perhaps he learned about mass production methods there as well? In any case, it remains for another study to show us the connections between industrial-scale mouse breeding, the research that consumed the mice, and the changing character of American institutions after World War I.
Griesemer, J., and E. M. Gerson. 2006. "Of mice and men and low unit cost". Studies in History & Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 37: 363-372.