Contributed Papers

Chemistry at Work

Presenter 1

Locating Laboratory Lives: The Urban Workscapes of Biotechnology

Robin Wolfe Scheffler

Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Historians of science have frequently examined forms of life within the laboratory without asking how these forms related to where laboratories themselves are placed. I develop this theme through contrasting the urbanization of the American biotechnology industry with the suburbanization of physics and engineering. After the Second World War, forecasts of the death of the city as a setting for scientific work were widespread. Sustained by unprecedented levels of government funding, American science, led by the physical sciences, migrated to the suburbs. Industries that relied on these researchers, such as computing, soon followed. However, biotechnology and the life sciences bucked this trend in the 1980s, remaining clustered near urban centers.

These contrasting distributions are an opportunity to explore the history of labor in the modern life sciences and its consequences for the position of biologists as workers in modern American society. I explore these dynamics guided by the idea of a "workscape," to borrow an idea from environmental and labor historian to that emphasizes the material, economic, and cultural facets of how and where work is conducted.

The clustering of the early biotechnology industry in cities was a product of the workscape of modern molecular biology. Although developments in molecular biology appeared to emphasize biology's similarities to physics and engineering, their workscapes remained different. In this paper I describe some of the salient features the biotechnology workscape including the perishability of living materials, the ideology of pure science prevalent among molecular biologists, and the dynamics of biotechnological finance. These factors focused the industry into cities, even as many other factors suggested that biotechnology take root elsewhere. Describing the workscapes of other sciences provides a fruitful path for understanding the place of science, and scientists, in society as a whole.


Presenter 2

Zero Risk: Chemical Workers' Struggles for Health in Italy (1966-1977)

Sara Meloni

University of Pennsylvania


The petrochemical industry was one of the main drivers of Italy's "economic miracle" after the Second World War. Industrial plants for manufacturing fuels, plastics, synthetic fibers, and pharmaceuticals attracted massive private and public investments, but also created new social and public health problems. With high rates of mutilating injuries and occupational diseases caused by exposure to toxic substances, Italian factories exemplified how-in the words of scientist-activist Giulio Maccacaro-"capital literally appropriated workers' bodies." By the mid-1960s, a revival of labor unrest in industrial centers such as Turin and Milan raised the issue of workers' health. This paper describes the emergence of new ways of studying and controlling the factory environment developed by workers in the Montedison chemical plant of Castellanza (Lombardy). Non-hierarchical forms of collaboration between factory councils and science workers-laboratory technicians, toxicologists, occupational physicians-challenged the "regimes of imperceptibility" sustained by company doctors and industrial toxicologists. Embracing the slogan of "non-delega" (non-delegation), workers started to organize self-managed investigations and used their knowledge of production processes to reject harmful practices and substances. While existing scholarship has focused on the broader influence of the Castellanza model on Italian labor law and the environmental movement, this paper analyzes the specific tools and methods-logbooks, inquiries, validation procedures-through which workers' subjectivity was translated into usable knowledge. Drawing from published materials and archives of trade unions, factory councils, companies, and physicians, the paper traces how labor movements introduced new ways of doing science as they demanded a "rischio zero" (zero risk) approach towards industrial chemicals both in the workplace and in their communities.


Presenter 3

The Legitimization of Chemical Textile Dyes as Food Additives in Europe and the US in the Late 19th Century

Carolyn Cobbold

University of Cambridge


We live in a world saturated by chemicals - our food, our clothes, and even our bodies play host to thousands of synthetic chemicals that did not exist before the nineteenth century. By the 1900s, hundreds of bright new coal tar dyes had begun to transform Europe and North America. Manufactured for textiles, the novel dyes soon permeated daily life in unexpected ways. By the time risks and uncertainties surrounding the new chemical substances surfaced, they were already being consumed across a range of industrialised food products. In this talk I will describe how aniline and ago dyes, synthesised from coal tar, became legitimised as food colourings, exploring the mediation involved between manufacturers, retailers, consumers, politicians and scientists. I will also demonstrate how difficult it is for scientists to retain control of their products and processes once they have leave the laboratory and enter a commercial marketplace. The use of the new dyes in food influenced perceptions and understandings of food, science and technology, as well as trust in science and scientists. Because the new dyes were among the earliest contested chemical additives in food, the battles surrounding their use offers striking insights and parallels into today's international struggles surrounding chemical, food and trade regulation.


Presenter 4

The Subjects Found That the Steak Was Blue: Science, Marketing and the Making of a Culinary Myth

Joel Harold Tannenbaum

Community College of Philadelphia


Have you heard the one about the food scientists who serve strangely colored foods to unsuspecting volunteers under special lighting that makes the meal appear normal? Midway through the experiment someone turns the conventional lights on, revealing blue steaks, green potatoes and red peas, causing confusion, anger and even illness among the horrified volunteers. Surely you've heard the story; it's been cited in dozens of peer-reviewed journals, the New York Times and the Guardian, on National Public Radio, and even by the author of Fast Food Nation. But there is one small catch: The experiment appears never to have actually happened. This presentation attempts to locate the origins of this strange story, along the way encountering chemists navigating the nascent field of food colorimetry, advertising executives in a panic over the introduction of color television, and Cold War research agencies attempting to make dehydrated emergency meals that the public will find palatable. I will speculate as to the origins of this story, why it has persisted, how it has eluded the conventions of fact-checking and peer review, and what it says about us that we continue to believe it. No blue food will be served and no special lighting will be utilized.