Field Note: London, England

Article excerpt

Summer 2005. As the soft afternoon light began to spill through the venetian-blind-lidded windows, the discussion drew to a close. I was conducting a fieldwork interview at the time with an eminent female professor, the principal investigator on one of the largest longitudinal studies of aging and cognitive decline ever undertaken. As part of my own Wellcome Trust-funded research project into issues surrounding the creation and use of human tissue collections, I was investigating how donated organs are employed in biomedical research, not only in the United Kingdom but also as part of much larger collaborative global biomedical research projects. With the tape recorder silenced, the woman scientist, who I now considered a valued colleague, perhaps even friend, began to initiate a new line of conversation. Was I aware, she asked, that neuropathological research was often comparative, but that one of the difficulties for researchers was that of securing access to normal, rather than diseased, brain tissue? Or that this normal brain tissue was in short supply because so few younger persons had made a commitment to donate their brains for research? Given my interest in the issue she wondered aloud if I had ever given the matter any thought and whether I might wish to take away a brain donation card for further perusal?

Having once been a blood donor, and the holder of an organ transplant card, and having been at times variously described as a born pragmatist and a Virgoan hyperrationalist, I would have sworn that such a suggestion would hold no perils for me. And yet as the card was pushed across the faux-wood desktop my heart-if not my brain-seemed to skip a beat. The first thing that struck me was the picture of the microscope on the card. As uninvited images of (somehow always) male scientists expectantly peering down the scope in their laborious, but gallant, search for cures to unspeakable diseases began to crowd my subconscious, I found myself wondering, How could this request possibly be refused?

And yet the idea that I could donate my brain (in which resided . . . what exactly, I asked myself?) to a brain bank where it might sit in contented solitude (aside from the other companionable brains) for months or years until it was employed for a very worthwhile, if utilitarian, purpose filled me . . . not with dread but with perhaps a kind of ill-defined existential angst. How curious that "I" would continue to exist after "I" had died. No, I chided myself, that didn't make sense. Let's start again and put it another way: Where, in all that, would "I" be? All the thoughts, memories, joys, and fears I had ever experienced were-I believed this at least-archived in the synaptic filigree of that organ. But how, if at all, were they inscribed into the architecture of the gray matter itself? What is the relationship between "self" (biological or psychic) and identity? What was "me," anyway?-in what does my identity reside? My body, my mind-or perhaps just my history? I would be dead and gone, anyway, my brain no longer of use to me or anyone else, so why should they not have it? Still, the brain donation card languishes in my desk drawer, not forgotten, but not signed either.

What made my feebleness even more shameful was the fact that I also knew that in literally hundreds of unremarkable suburban homes across Britain existed a group of women: not young, strong women like me, but extremely elderly and frail women (those so readily described by the tabloids as pensioners, housewives, and "old dears") whom, I discovered to my surprise, had found the courage to do willingly what I could not-to donate their brains for biomedical research. These women had lived lives that were both remarkable and unremarkable-some had been homemakers all their lives; others had pursued careers as secretaries, librarians, factory workers (one in the John Players cigarette factory for some forty-six years), and senior civil servants. …