Hitting Dogs with Hammers: Animals, Auto Safety, and the Angel of History

In the early 1940s, E. S. Gurdjian and Herbert Lissner, two researchers at Wayne State University, conducted the following experiment:

“First, they took a number of ‘mongrel dogs weighing 5 to 15 kilo,’ and with the dogs ‘under intravenous nembutal anesthesia,’ they cut off the dogs’ scalps and carved away the dogs’ masseter muscles.[1] The researchers then stopped all bleeding, before they 'carefully dried and polished' the skull. Next, they affixed a Baldwin Southward SR-4 stress gage to it. Then, Gurdjian, Lissner and their associates would prepare the 'pressure plugs,' devices that measured the internal pressure of a liquid filled space. The would use a 'number 25 drill' to make two holes in the dog's head. They filled these holes with the pressure plugs, ensuring that the wires made 'contact with cerebrospinal fluid and the brain.' Then the Wayne State researchers hit the dogs on the head with radial hammers, often repeatedly, sometimes—with breaks between strikes—for hours at a time. Using the strain gage and the 'pressure plugs,' the researchers could study both the structural deformation of the skull as well as changes in its internal pressure as the hammer struck the dog's head, thereby learning about the functions of concussion in real time."  

A (living) dog's skull prepared with strain gages and "pressure plugs" for a study of concussion at Wayne State University. Once prepared, the dog would be hit over the head with a hammer, often repeatedly.

A (living) dog's skull prepared with strain gages and "pressure plugs" for a study of concussion at Wayne State University. Once prepared, the dog would be hit over the head with a hammer, often repeatedly.

This winter break, most of my work energy will go into writing the third chapter of my book, Taming the American Idol, from which I’ve drawn the quotation above. The chapter examines the rise of two new sciences of automotive risk, namely the science of photochemical smog and other forms of automotive air pollution and impact biomechanics, or the study of how physical forces affect biological entities. These two bodies of scientific knowledge emerged between about 1940 and 1960, the period of time that my book’s third chapter explores. These sciences laid the foundation for federal automotive safety and pollution control regulations that became law in the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, since fuel economy standards in the United States are based on information from auto air pollution tests, you could say that these sciences undergird basically all of the major US auto regulations.

Studying impact biomechanics brings me to a dark place, however. So much of the field’s work was based on experiments on living non-human animals. Cadavers of both the human and non-human variety also played a central part—perhaps the central part—but frankly experiments on the dead do not bother me (that is, as long as the deaths were ethical, which in the case of non-human animals, they often weren't). I first wrote about the role of animal experimentation in impact biomechanics in a paper that I delivered at the 2012 meeting of the Society for the History of Technology in Copenhagen. In that paper, I concluded with a section on ethics, animal rights, and history. I was deeply moved when I wrote the paper—honestly, to the point of moral disgust—and I couldn't end the paper without explicitly addressing the politics and morality involved in these experiments.

The Wayne State researchers applied strain gages and other devices not just to skulls but to many other parts of living animals as well. This image if from a textbook they wrote on the use of strain gages. 

The Wayne State researchers applied strain gages and other devices not just to skulls but to many other parts of living animals as well. This image if from a textbook they wrote on the use of strain gages. 

I agree with Martha Nussbaum that, contrary to the claims of some conservative philosophers, disgust is a destructive emotion, which doesn’t help but hinders moral thinking. I also believe that disgust shuts down our capacities to be good historians and social scientists. So, when I say that my research into impact biomechanics moved me to disgust, I mean that I wigged out. I had to do some self-work to un-wig myself and get back to work. Writing the concluding section of my paper was an initial step in that direction. That ethical section, however, will not fit in Taming the American Idol, which is a narrative history of auto regulation in the United States. So, I am putting the section here. First, though, I will give a sketch of the rise of animal experimentation in impact biomechanics. For a deeper and more nuanced account of this history, you’ll have to wait for my book.

In the United States, the field of impact biomechanics is really best thought of as an instance of multiple independent invention. Several groups across the country began doing work that would later be called impact biomechanics in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but they initiated that research for their own idiosyncratic, local regions, not because they were a part of some larger discussion. Only later did these researchers coalesce into a community of inquiry. From the beginning, impact biomechanics was a hybrid field that brought together engineering disciplines with biological ones, including medicine. That hybridity can be easily seen at Wayne State, the only case I’ll address in this post. 

In 1939, the surgeon and Wayne State professor E. S. Gurdjian became interested in the biological mechanisms of concussion. He had grown weary of watching people die from head injuries in the emergency room—especially those caused by auto accidents. He realized that to study such injures you needed to be able to measure and think about forces, something that lay outside of his expertise. So, he reached out to engineers at Wayne State. Soon, he had connected with the young mechanical engineer, Herbert Lissner, who was an expert in materials testing. Gurdjian’s and Lissner’s initial research involved studying skull fracture. They painted industrial lacquer on dried skulls and dropped the skulls on steel plates. The lacquer enabled Gurdjian and Lissner to observe what parts of the skulls were most prone to fracture. 

These skull studies had limits, however. Soon the Wayne State researchers had moved onto cadaver research. But more important, Gurdjian and Lissner realized that if they were going to understand the biological responses inherent in processes like concussion they would need living subjects. Since inducing concussions in humans was ethically problematic even in the 1940s, the researchers turned to living animals—in the case of Wayne State, mostly dogs. In the beginning, the Wayne State researchers lacked their own research facilities and equipment, but they were able to find available resources at one of the automakers' facilities. One impact biomechanics researcher later joked, "Taking anesthetized dogs into the auto plant at 10 P.M, past the plant protection, makes quite a story."

Wayne State researchers wondered if multiple impacts on the skull created cumulative concussive responses or if the brain and its related organs and processes returned to a baseline between impacts. Of course, multiple impacts are sometimes an issue for humans, including when they box or play football. To explore this issue, researchers hit drugged dogs over the head with a hammer once every half an hour. In the experiment pictured here, the dog was struck thirteen times. In other words, the experiment lasted at least 6.5 hours. Then the dog died. 

Wayne State researchers wondered if multiple impacts on the skull created cumulative concussive responses or if the brain and its related organs and processes returned to a baseline between impacts. Of course, multiple impacts are sometimes an issue for humans, including when they box or play football. To explore this issue, researchers hit drugged dogs over the head with a hammer once every half an hour. In the experiment pictured here, the dog was struck thirteen times. In other words, the experiment lasted at least 6.5 hours. Then the dog died. 

Over time, the Wayne State researchers developed their own research facilities. Most famously, they devised a—perhaps unique—scientific instrument: they removed an elevator from its shaft and began dropping cadavers and living non-human animals down it. As one Wayne State researcher recalled, "A light frame mounted at an angle of about 30 degrees to the horizontal was guided on vertical rails and could be dropped from the required height to achieve the desired velocity. The cadaver was placed on the frame with the head extended out over the end of the sled. A heavy steel plate was placed in position for the head to hit." 

The Wayne State Accelerator was an elevator shaft with the elevator removed. Researchers could use pneumatic forces to shoot bodies up the shaft or simply drop human cadavers and living and dead non-human animals down it.

The Wayne State Accelerator was an elevator shaft with the elevator removed. Researchers could use pneumatic forces to shoot bodies up the shaft or simply drop human cadavers and living and dead non-human animals down it.

Many years later, when the author Mary Roach visited the facility for her book, Stiff, researchers purchased "Smurf-blue leotards" from an unwitting local dance store and placed them on cadavers to keep all of the various bits together during the impacts. 

In my longer conference paper, I had a section that described why researchers believed that non-human animals made good models for humans in biomechanics research. (I’m happy to share the longer essay with anyone who is interested. Just email me at leevinsel@gmail.com.) My claim was that biomechanics researchers gave three reasons for using non-human animals as test subjects. Animals made good models 1) because of their likeness to humans, 2) because they acted as a supplement or complement to cadaver studies and other safety research, and 3) because they acted as stand-ins where little data was available on human subjects. But there is and was a larger issue at hand. In many, if not all, cultures, the image of "man" has always depended on the image of the "animal." We seem to require other living beings to define ourselves. As a recent reader in animal studies argues, "Animals . . . are so deeply enmeshed in human self-conception that if they did not exist we would need to invent them."[1]

Three photos: An embalmed dog placed in a testing frame. The device that was fixed to the dog's vertebra to study forces under acceleration. The dog in the frame put inside the Wayne State Accelerator (elevator shaft). The same kinds of studies were conducted using living animals.

Three photos: An embalmed dog placed in a testing frame. The device that was fixed to the dog's vertebra to study forces under acceleration. The dog in the frame put inside the Wayne State Accelerator (elevator shaft). The same kinds of studies were conducted using living animals.

Since I began researching this topic, many people have asked me about its moral dimensions. Most often they want to know whether I condone these experiments on non-human animals. They want me to judge the researchers. This part is not hard in my view. I cannot imagine a possible world where it is moral to hit a dog over the head with a hammer for nearly seven hours. I believe, however, that this question about justice and the act of judging the researchers are not the really difficult, or even the most important, moral problems involved in this research. These experiments also connect to more difficult and subtle moral questions, for instance, having to do with the banality of evil. But, again, the quandary of these particular banalities is that they have departed the laboratory and influenced the shape of our world.

Researchers at Tulane argued that "despite some differences, the ratio of head mass to cervical spine cross-section in rabbit and in man is in reasonable geometric proportion. Moreover, the Belgian hare, if properly positioned, is capable of sitting erect." So, they decided to use rabbits in a study of "whiplash." As the Tulane researchers noted, "The original objective in this experiment was to produce injuries sufficiently severe to cause death and possibly decapitation in the test animals." Yet, this goal proved difficult. When the first test instrument proved insufficient for the challenge, the researchers went through a Goldilocks-like process of designing more and more severe testing equipment, three or four in all, trying to find one that was "just right." But the researchers never obtained their objective. 

Researchers at Tulane argued that "despite some differences, the ratio of head mass to cervical spine cross-section in rabbit and in man is in reasonable geometric proportion. Moreover, the Belgian hare, if properly positioned, is capable of sitting erect." So, they decided to use rabbits in a study of "whiplash." As the Tulane researchers noted, "The original objective in this experiment was to produce injuries sufficiently severe to cause death and possibly decapitation in the test animals." Yet, this goal proved difficult. When the first test instrument proved insufficient for the challenge, the researchers went through a Goldilocks-like process of designing more and more severe testing equipment, three or four in all, trying to find one that was "just right." But the researchers never obtained their objective. 

Over thirty years ago, Langdon Winner published his famous article, the title of which asked, "Do Artifacts Have Politics?" He answered definitively, "yes." In his most famous example, Winner recounts a story from Robert Caro's biography of the cityplanner Robert Moses. Moses, Caro argues, was a racist, and he was determined to keep blacks and the poor off his newly designed parkways and beaches on Long Island, New York. Since impoverished minorities primarily used public buses for transportation, Moses thwarted their hopes of reaching his beaches by designing the bridges on his parkways to be too low for buses. Thus, Winner claims that that Moses's bridges have a built-in politics; they were "a way of settling an issue in a particular community." The "politics" of Winner's bridges are social facts, however. They are a part of the meaning of things in a given society, at a given time. If a future society or an alien culture with different social structures came to inhabit the city, they could still use Moses's bridges, but it is hard to see how the bridges would still be racist bridges. 

A rabbit undergoing a "whiplash" simulation at Tulane. In their article based on these studies, the Tulane researchers concluded, probably unhelpfully, "The historical premise that the neck of the rabbit is fragile appears to be in error."

A rabbit undergoing a "whiplash" simulation at Tulane. In their article based on these studies, the Tulane researchers concluded, probably unhelpfully, "The historical premise that the neck of the rabbit is fragile appears to be in error."

Similarly, via safety standards, these experiments in biomechanics may adhere to our things, though they are not a part of a technology's physical essence. They aren't a part of the thing itself, what academics might call its ontology. It is closer to a "hauntology," one of Jacques Derrida's punny neologisms meant to denote a form of existence that is neither present, nor absent. These animals and cadavers do haunt our things; we carry them with us, even if they are no longer present. Their destruction has "shaped" our technology. Scholars probably draw on the metaphor of shaping too often and too vaguely, but in the case of auto standards and animal experiments, shaping is quite literal. For instance, automakers design dashboard crumple zones with federal safety criteria in mind, and if the Wayne State studies played some role in setting federal safety standards, then crushed dog skulls played some part in the shape of dashboards. QED. These destroyed animals are with us, even if we are not aware.  

The Wayne Curve, a graphical representation that aggregated studies on human cadavers and living non-human animals (dogs), which came to depict the amount of force that the average human being could withstand. The Wayne Curve played a central part in the first automotive safety standards in the United States. 

The Wayne Curve, a graphical representation that aggregated studies on human cadavers and living non-human animals (dogs), which came to depict the amount of force that the average human being could withstand. The Wayne Curve played a central part in the first automotive safety standards in the United States. 

These ideas seem to question how we should relate to the things around us. When we reach for a plastic container of shampoo in the shower, should we see a wall of rabbits’ eyes staring back at us? Because the eyes of rabbits were the most common “instruments” used for the Draize toxicity test for cosmetics and other substances. When we look out at a field of helmeted high school football players, should we see the mangled bodies of biomechanical test subjects hovering over the field like some inverted guardian angels? Because impact biomechanics has greatly influenced protective clothing for athletics. What would it entail if we did see things in this way? Would it even matter?

One answer to these questions would be that, if we truly believe that the biomechanical experiments on non-human animals were immoral, we should somehow purify our knowledge and practices of them. This notion recalls debates around the use of knowledge that Nazi scientists gained by experimenting of victims of the Shoah, an analogy I do not wish to belabor.

When members of a committee of the Society of Automotive Engineers became interested in how seatbelts affected pregnant women, the Federal Aviation Agency and researchers at Holloman Air Force Base conducted a series of experiments on pregnant baboons. Because researchers were not able to find enough pregnant baboons for their study, researchers implanted, in three non-pregnant baboons, a "simulated uterus," which "consisted of a rubber balloon enclosed in nylon netting and [containing] a transducer to measure pressure changes during acceleration." The researchers then put the baboons through series of decelerations, which were meant to mimic the experience of a "typical passenger in a hypothetical Boeing 720 type airliner crashing on takeoff." All of the mothers and fetuses died, some only after twenty hours of suffering.

When members of a committee of the Society of Automotive Engineers became interested in how seatbelts affected pregnant women, the Federal Aviation Agency and researchers at Holloman Air Force Base conducted a series of experiments on pregnant baboons. Because researchers were not able to find enough pregnant baboons for their study, researchers implanted, in three non-pregnant baboons, a "simulated uterus," which "consisted of a rubber balloon enclosed in nylon netting and [containing] a transducer to measure pressure changes during acceleration." The researchers then put the baboons through series of decelerations, which were meant to mimic the experience of a "typical passenger in a hypothetical Boeing 720 type airliner crashing on takeoff." All of the mothers and fetuses died, some only after twenty hours of suffering.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, debates arose over whether data from Nazi experiments should be published or used, with some claiming that the data should be set aside altogether and using it amounted to "harming the victims anew."[2]  Some solutions put forward for resolving the controversy—such as gaining the consent of victims or their families before using the data—simply do not fit cases involving non-human animals. Yet, on a broader level, such arguments raise the question of whether knowledge, once gained, can be purified, set aside, purposely forgotten. If we stopped using the published results, should we also set aside any study that cited or relied on these publications? Should we start over from scratch? But some theories in the philosophy of science claim that we cannot test hypotheses in isolation; we require auxiliary, or background assumptions.[3] If this thesis is correct, could we guarantee that our assumptions were not somehow handed down from these earlier studies? Could we assure that our received wisdom was somehow pure of this stain? Central myths in the Western tradition, including the Biblical Fall and the story of Prometheus, suggest that knowledge cannot be unlearned or at least not easily forgotten.

A graphical representation of some of the major biomechanical findings for the seatbelt experiments on pregnant baboons.

A graphical representation of some of the major biomechanical findings for the seatbelt experiments on pregnant baboons.

Instead, perhaps learning to live with such knowledge is a part of living with time, of being in and of history, and perhaps this knowledge requires us to live in a different relationship with things. What is this relationship? I do not know, but its (possible) invitation troubles and unnerves me. The “Theses on the Philosophy of History” contains one of Walter Benjamin most famous passages:

“There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something that he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet . . . .  A storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.”[4]

Yes, and my research suggests this: that the storm called progress is true even of its seeming opposite, that destruction is present even in its inversion—what we call “safety.”

 

 

[1] All quotations in this paragraph are from E. S. Gurdjian and H. R. Lissner, “Mechanism of Head Injury as Studied by the Cathode Ray Oscilloscope Preliminary Report,” Journal of Neurosurgery 1, no. 6 (1944), 393–399, esp. 393.

[1] Aaron Gross, “Introduction and Overview: Animal Others and Animal Studies” in Animals and Human Imagination: A Companion to Animal Studies, ed. Aaron Gross and Anne Vallely (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 1.

[2] See, for instance, Stephen G. Post, “The Echo of Nuremberg: Nazi Data and Ethics,” Journal of Medical Ethics 17 (1991), 42–44, esp. 43.

[3] I’m thinking of the Duhem-Quine Thesis.

[4] My copy of Benjamin’s Illuminations is currently living with my wife in Missouri. I take this quotation from the translation of Benjamin’s “Theses” available here: http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm