Academic journal article Nursing History Review

Interdisciplinary Interprofessionalism at Mid-Century: Ancel Keys, Human Biology, and the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene, 1940-1950

Academic journal article Nursing History Review

Interdisciplinary Interprofessionalism at Mid-Century: Ancel Keys, Human Biology, and the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene, 1940-1950

Article excerpt

In 1944, physiologist Ancel Keys and his University of Minnesota colleague, psychologist Josef Brozek published an article in Science titled "General Aspects of Interdisciplinary Research in Experimental Human Biology."1 They wrote the paper in part to promote the synthetic and interdisciplinary style of research on human health and performance conducted at Keys's Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene (LPH). A term coined by biologist Raymond Pearl during the interwar period, "human biology" was a holistic science that encompassed research in physical anthropology, genetics, clinical medicine, physiology, biochemistry, and organismal and population biology, as researchers in the field examined the dynamic, ecological relationship between i ndividuals or populations and their adaptation to environmental stress.2 Keys embraced this interdisciplinary approach during his fellowship years (1933-36) at the Harvard Fatigue Lab. There, physician and philosopher L.J. Henderson and psychologist Elton Mayo had extended the science of human biology to problems of industry and athletics in an effort to optimize human performance.3 Keys pursued a similar goal in 1935, when he led the Harvardbased International High Altitude Expedition to Chile. Over four months, an interdisciplinary scientific team measured their physiological and psychological acclimatization to great heights-a topic of interest to the aviation and mining industries in the Andes.4

The Science essay also offered Keys and Brozek a pulpit to urge the wholesale restructuring of undergraduate and graduate study in the sciences. They wrote at a time when universities across the nation were grappling with the place of the sciences in undergraduate "general education," and when the applied problems of World War II had brought investigators from different disciplines together, demonstrating the power of collaborative scientific research-most notably in the Manhattan Project but also in projects such as Keys's development of the first compact, calorie-dense, lightweight meal for soldiers: the K ration. Ruefully observing that "the young scientist has a greater chance of advancement if he saws wood on his own wood pile . . . [and] does not participate in interdepartmental, collaborative projects," Keys and Brozek critiqued the specialization that characterized graduate science education.5 Asserting that problems in human biology (and many other fields) demanded "analysis and manipulation of a sector of reality, and . . . this reality is always multifarious,"6 they offered the example of the LPH as a sort of interdisciplinary, interprofessional "Camelot." There each scientist was familiar with the "language, the problems, and the research methods of the other" and "physiologists, biochemists and psychologists, together with technical assistants, worked as a team under the coordinating effort of a directorcolleague." Under these circumstances, Keys and Brozek added, participants should engage one another as both "active listeners" and "active talkers" to attain an "equilibrium between dominance and submission."7

Whether or not members of Ancel Keys's laboratory staff achieved such equilibrium is a subject for debate. Some recall Keys as a research director of the old-school variety: a brilliant individual whose authority was as unquestioned as his scientific ability. Yet, there can be no doubt that he tried to promote social and intellectual equilibrium or that his laboratory boasted an extensive record of productive interprofessional collaborations among biochemists (including his wife Margaret Haney Keys), psychologists such as Brozek, and myriad physiologists, physicians, statisticians, dieticians, and nurses at the LPH.8 The last two groups were employed as "technicians," a term that masks their centrality to Keys's interdisciplinary scientific enterprise. This essay explores the interdisciplinary science and interprofessional relations at the LPH, with particular emphasis on two nutritional projects: the K ration and the Minnesota Starvation Experiment (MSE). …

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