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From Mice to Museums: Karen Rader’s Study of the History of Science

Karen Rader. Photo by Allen Jones, VCU University Marketing

Blowing in from the coast, the gale stirs the meager flames into a roaring conflagration that descends on the small resort town, killing 14 people and 90,000 laboratory mice.

The year: 1947. The location: Bar Harbor, Maine. The ashen, murine graveyard: Jackson Laboratory, the nation’s largest supplier of laboratory mice and a kind of institutional and cultural linchpin responsible for popularizing the mouse’s use in scientific research.

The story of the Jackson Labs fire kicks off AAAS Fellow and historian of science Karen Rader’s book Making Mice—Standardizing Animals for American Biomedical Research, 1900–1955, a widely acclaimed history of how the mouse became the ubiquitous research tool it is today and the beginning of Rader’s career examining science’s seemingly marginal elements; its lab mice and its museum displays, to name a few subjects Rader has researched in-depth. 

The 50-year-old Rader teaches the history of science at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, but this wasn’t her original career path. She started out studying biology and biomedical engineering. The Baltimore, Maryland, native’s first foray into science as history began in the margins, in this case of her school textbooks, in the short, factoid-filled blurbs about famous researchers accompanying her books’ main texts.

“I just found myself fascinated with the stories of  scientists and how they came to be scientists and who they were,” said Rader.

Around the same time, Rader said she became disillusioned with the rote quality of the classroom. Then she was assigned Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, the famed English novelist and journalist’s gruesome report of London in the plague-ridden year 1665.

“It was narratively gripping but had all these nerdy details about bodies and plague and what bodies looked like,” said Rader.

She was hooked. So when her teacher told Rader that there was a whole field called the history of science, she added a history minor, going on to earn her Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of Science from Indiana University. Making Mice was her dissertation.

Staying true to her interest in the seemingly marginal, Making Mice is ostensibly a book about how the mouse went from household nuisance to laboratory necessity. However, the book is more than that. Like her later work examining the history of animals in museum displays in her books Life on Display and Animals on Display, Making Mice is at heart a kind of meditation on how everyday elements of science are anything but ordinary, and certainly not preordained. The lab mouse, now nearly ubiquitous in biological research, is a good example. 

Making Mice and related work by Rader tell the story of a small cohort of scientists that formed during the early decades of the 20th century. This group of researchers was enthusiastic about using mice in experiments. These mouse enthusiasts, whose work eventually coalesced around Jackson Labs, pushed for the animal’s scientific use at a time when research universities took a natural history approach to studying animals in the wild and something close to an applied husbandry approach when studying animals in controlled settings. Indeed, mouse enthusiasts often found themselves working with economically important animals—such as chickens and horses—instead of mice. So why was this? 

According to Rader, mice and the other animals—including flies and rats—that would end up forming the first wave of what we now call lab animals were not only seen as commercially unimportant, the scientific establishment hadn’t found a clear use for them, not yet. The reason: Science was just then developing the idea that animals could act as experimental models. This is where the mouse enthusiasts helped revolutionize the study of biology. They reasoned that experiments on mice could tell them not only about mice but also mammals in general, including humans.

They saw the mouse as something more than a singular, unique organism; they saw the mouse as a generalizable one. They saw the mouse as a biological model. But they did something more than that, said Rader. Through something like boosterism, they advocated for mice, effectively marketing the animal model to other scientists.

“Creating an effective model organism is a tremendous amount of work,” said Rader. “But it’s also something that you have to convince other scientists to work on too. Part of doing science is getting people on your bandwagon.”

Of course the mice weren’t ideal models right off the bat. Like other scientific tools—from how much a kilogram weighs to how long a second is—the mouse underwent standardization. In practice, this meant creating a series of mouse breeds with specific traits and limited variations, biological standards that would create better experimental models. Much of this work was done at Jackson Labs, which by the 1940s had become the largest supplier of experimental mice in the United States. 

It’s in this light that Rader said we should see the 1947 fire, not as a near-miss for the lab, but as something like a coming-of-age moment for the mouse as an animal model, and a testament to the lab’s efforts to standardize and market the mouse.

“It [the fire] was devastating,” said Rader. “But the saving grace was that [Jackson Labs] could rebuild after the fire because they had been sending their mice all over the country. They had achieved enough market penetration at that point because they had done such a good job standardizing.”

Following the fire, Jackson Labs was rebuilt as mouse researchers packed up their Jackson mice, sending them back to Maine to begin the lab’s breeding efforts anew. Today, the descendants of these mice are the famous “JAX Mice” (now a registered trademark of the still-thriving Jackson Labs) as well as the decedents of the first “knockout mice,” mice genetically modified to lack certain genes and, hence, act as even more effective animal models.

Rader said one of the things that attracted her most to studying the history of the mouse model was the awareness by the history’s actors that they were altering how the mouse was perceived, from a dirty pest scurrying down corridors to a living tool residing in sterile labs.

This work inspired Rader to study other efforts to alter perceptions in the name of science, leading her to write two books and several papers on how museum curators, scientists, and educators transformed museums from de facto warehouses where specimens were collected, often distorted and pickle-like in formaldehyde-filled jars, to destinations for public science education and outreach where specimens are now displayed in lifelike poses in the ersatz ecosystems of museum dioramas. It also inspired Rader to do some outreach of her own.     

“As an historian and archive hound, I like the academic approach to history. But as I started writing more about outreach—historical outreach that others did—I started thinking about doing more of my own outreach,” she said.

Last year, the National Science Foundation awarded Rader and her Science, Technology and Society program at Virginia Commonwealth University a two-year grant to test whether science cafés—informal talks, often at pubs or cafés, that cover science and related topics—can aid adult science education.

Done in cooperation with local National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting Service affiliates and a local nonprofit specializing in science cafés, Rader’s goal with these talks is to spread not only basic knowledge about science to nonscientists, but also to convey her belief that real gems can be found in science’s seemingly marginal subjects.

She said, “I have a concern like many philosophers and historians of science in the role of science in civil society and how important science is but at the same time how misunderstood it is. So I’m trying to do something to contribute to that conversation.”

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<p>Karen Rader.&nbsp;Photo by Allen Jones, VCU University Marketing</p>
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