Order of Multitudes

Behold, Beagles: Conversation with Brad Bolman

Brad Bolman is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, affiliated with the Department of History and the Committee on the Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, at the University of Chicago. His research focuses on the intersections of biology, medicine, physics, and capitalism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with a focus on non-human actors. Most recently, his work has looked at dogs, especially beagles, as experimental subjects. We talked about this canine-centered history of twentieth-century science, including why beagles became the chosen dog breed for researchers in fields from eugenics to neuroscience to the tobacco industry.

Sarah Pickman: Your current book project, The Dog Years, looks at how beagle dogs became research subjects over the course of the twentieth century, in fields as diverse as eugenics, neuroscience, and toxicology. Can you talk about how you first became interested in dogs as research subjects? Was there a moment when you realized you were seeing beagles at every turn?

Brad Bolman: Many years ago, an advisor gave me a strange task: to find out why the American military had dressed pigs up in little radiation-protection jumpsuits and set them before atomic bomb blasts. (You can see examples on YouTube.) This got me started on a long project about the history of pigs as experimental animals, and one of the things that I noticed while reading the reports and records of American nuclear laboratories was that they were often doing experiments with sheep, goats, pigs, rodents (of course), but also beagles. It seemed strange to me that the reports were satisfied with leaving most of the animals at their species level but specified the breed of the dogs. Why? What made beagles such important test subjects? What gave them this incipient brand identity?

After finishing the pig project, I thought to myself: “There have to be beagles in other fields or disciplines, it can’t just be a weird nuclear research thing.” A lot of my writing has been the result of hunches like this one paying off, and it worked here as well: you could pull disciplines from a hat and expect to find beagles. In some ways, this was a tremendous boon for dissertation research—a nearly infinite set of possible chapters—but it also presented a challenge because very few early beagle scientists were seen as significant enough to have their records preserved. That’s particularly true of figures such as veterinary technicians, who didn’t fully professionalize until the mid-twentieth century and have a very marginal archival presence. This is layered on top of the challenge that scholars like Etienne Benson have noted: that writing animal histories requires a tracing of the path of beings who don’t leave their own written histories behind.

Sarah Pickman: Why were such diverse actors interested in using one dog breed as a test subject—how did dog breeding and the idea of purebreds feed into your actors’ work? And why beagles, specifically?

Brad Bolman: The answer to that question—why beagles?—seemed at first to be pretty obvious: American nuclear scientists and military planners during and after World War II were highly concerned about the danger of radiation. Chicago’s MetLab conducted research during the Manhattan Project with rodents, but they had a tendency, as one researcher darkly joked, of dying of pneumonia before they could develop bone cancers. In other words, rodents don’t live long enough to reveal the long-term effects of plutonium exposure, which was an area of particular concern. So they wanted something larger, and dogs seemed like a decent choice. 

But which dog? In one of the early post-war nuclear tests, the planners settled on foxhounds. It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact reason for this, but the dogs were larger (similar to our bodies, if you looked at them the right way) and some of the researchers at Rochester had a penchant for foxhounds. But when American nuclear labs—including two new major labs in the West at the University of Utah and UC Davis—decided to breed dogs for long-term studies around 1949, there simply weren’t enough foxhounds nearby to build the original breeding stocks. There were, however, a load of beagles everywhere in the US because the breed was on its way to dethroning Cocker Spaniels as the most popular dog in the United States. As a bit of popular evidence, 1950 is when Snoopy, our most famous beagle, first appears in Peanuts. Once these labs started breeding tons of beagles, they learned a huge amount about how to feed them and care for them. Subsequent researchers had an obvious option. So, I thought: the beagle was a kind of accident of the early atomic era. 

The full story, which my book explores, is more complicated. From the 1930s onward, researchers in the United States (but also in France and England and elsewhere) started to worry about what we could call the “quality” of their dogs. Prior to this time, say in Ivan Pavlov’s case, the easiest way to get a dog for an experiment was to just grab one off the street. But scientists started to worry: “Well how normal is that dog I just got, if it’s malnourished or has unknown illnesses?” What they really wanted was a “standard” dog, like the “standard” fruit flies or mice that were becoming popular. (In science more broadly, this was an era of standardization for many experimental tools.) For many of these researchers, a “standard” dog had a self-evident connection to “purebred”: those show and competition dogs had to be more consistent and healthier—assumptions which had rather obvious racial and class connotations.

But dogs have some of the most extreme morphological differences of any species, and it was hard to decide which breed was best. A Columbia researcher proposed Irish Terriers, and the FDA briefly bred Irish Terriers for early toxicology research, but the idea never really caught on. Beagles were floated, too, but after the Rockefeller Foundation refused to support the creation of a national “stock center” for dogs, the quest fizzled out until nuclear researchers came onto the scene. Not only nuclear researchers, however: pharmacologists were also increasingly concerned about standard animals, and they liked dogs because of similarities to human cardiovascular systems. Pharmaceutical corporations (many located in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area) started building their own colonies, using beagles, and their international counterparts followed. Those two forces, pharmacology and radiobiology, put beagles in an almost unassailable position as the experimental dog by the mid-1960s.

Sarah Pickman: The widespread use of dogs as research animals might seem surprising to readers. Today, dogs are usually regarded first and foremost as companion animals, even as family members. How were these dog-based studies received, both by other researchers and the wider public? What factors caused the shift away from dogs as test subjects?

Brad Bolman: What is interesting about this story is that it’s partly a history of animal sentimentality. There are suggestions that American planners avoided dogs for the first post-war nuclear test to avoid controversy, and humane societies did protest the initial nuclear beagle colonies, especially the one at Davis. But they didn’t reject the whole project: they just didn’t want scientists buying dogs from competition breeders and then using them for experiments. If the lab was willing to construct its own internal colony of dogs, California humane groups promised to withdraw their objections. So that’s what happened. And the general public was, if anything, hugely supportive: the Davis beagle lab was a popular weekend attraction for families in the area and frequently featured during university celebrations and events. In another example—the first lab dedicated to canine health, which was built at Cornell in the early 1950s—wealthy dog owners were essential in funding the entire project. The lab planned to use purebred beagles for its experiments, and far from protesting this, beagle clubs around the country held their typical competitions as fundraisers for the laboratory. It’s an early example of what we’d now think of as “citizen science.”

Experimentation with beagles continues to this day in the United States, although less than five decades ago. Public opposition has grown. Today we think of dogs as complex emotional beings, and dog owners (like me) are willing to shell out hundreds to feed and vaccinate our friends—even give them daily pharmaceuticals. That was almost unthinkable in 1950: an early study at Davis found that most domestic dogs were killed by cars, then secondarily by disease, because owners usually just left them to their own devices. Sentimentality about dogs has grown dramatically, and that’s one factor in the decreased usage. Another factor is simply cost: a small university lab in the United States might want to use beagles, but the price tag can be tens-of-thousands of dollars. 

A third factor is the growth of the animal rights and animal welfare movement. Dogs played a key role in these early victories. A classic example would be Pepper, whose theft helped propel lab animal regulations. But the anthropologist Lesley Sharp has also noted in her recent book Animal Ethos that the beagle has become a kind of poster child for debates about lab animals in the last decade. You could see this, for instance, when conservatives claimed that Anthony Fauci and the NIH were “abusing” beagles. Because of this, the mode of production for laboratory animals has changed: pharmaceutical companies and others still raise and buy beagles, but laboratories have started to shift to what I call a “companion science” model. Namely, instead of the lab keeping and feeding the dogs, you volunteer your dog to participate in science. A great example is the Dog Aging Project at the University of Washington. I don’t have an explicit critique of this approach (although I’m not sure I’d volunteer my own dog), but what’s fascinating from a historical perspective is that it was citizen fears of scientists stealing dogs for experiments that helped initiate both the turn to purebred colony dogs and the successes of the early animal rights movement. So we’ve come full circle, to some extent. 

Sarah Pickman: You’re currently curating an exhibit for the University of Chicago’s Hanna Holburn Gray Special Collections Research Center on the Arvey Ordinance, which protected Chicago-area researchers’ ability to use dogs from dog pounds as research subjects in the early twentieth century. What was the long-term significance of the Arvey Ordinance?

Brad Bolman: Around the same time that researchers became interested in “standard” or “quality” dogs, they began to recognize that city dog pounds were not just places to get cheap dogs, but that pounds could become, in a sense, small-scale dog production businesses if they collected and cared for dogs better. (I explore one example of this process in a paper that will hopefully see the light of day someday.) In Chicago, a vigorous contest emerged between, on the one hand, medical researchers at the area universities, and on the other hand, anti-vivisectionist groups who were partly led by Irene Castle (famous both for popularizing modern dancing and designing the logo for the Blackhawks). University researchers built a coalition in defense of their access to the pound, arguing that it was essential for biological research in numerous fields, and they won the Arvey Ordinance, which permitted that access. It wasn’t the first time scientists won a victory like this, but Arvey became a kind of model for how to defeat the anti-vivisectionists elsewhere in the country. That “success” (depending on your perspective) held until the latter half of the twentieth century.

Sarah Pickman: Have you encountered any challenges in putting this exhibit together, especially given that animal testing is a sensitive subject for many potential viewers?

Brad Bolman: I have to admit that, at some level, I was surprised anyone agreed to let me work on this. Animal experimentation is, as you note, a sensitive subject. Universities and companies go to extreme lengths to hide both where and how they do animal research. Labs are often hidden underneath parking structures or entirely windowless to avoid notice. While working on my beagle book, I tried to convince someone to let me see drug testing dogs and I was basically told: “Not a chance in hell.” But that policy is changing, at least here at the University of Chicago, and some of the lab animal folks have started to become more vocal and open about the goals and methods of their research. In some sense, it’s a return to what was successful in the Arvey era. We’ll see how it works. Another more basic challenge is that while records are pretty strong here for many aspects of the Illinois Society for Medical Research and its role in (post-)Arvey advocacy, city records of animal controversies and even records of some individuals from the university aren’t nearly as comprehensive as I had hoped.

Sarah Pickman: At Harvard, you taught a mini-course on the cultural history of teeth. What inspired you to, err, take a bite out of this topic? Are there any surprising interspecies linkages when it comes to human versus animal teeth?

Brad Bolman: I came to teeth through beagles, so for me at least the linkage was clear. One of my early beagle findings was that the breed became a key model for periodontology research in the 1960s and somewhat remains so to this day. In the old days, experimental periodontal studies might have asked dental students to not brush one side of their mouth for a few days or something, but selectively brushing a few relatively pliable dogs isn’t quite so tricky. Again, why beagles? Well, nuclear researchers had found that the dogs’ teeth sometimes fell out and they wondered, “Is it the radiation or is it just dental disease?” Some American researchers heard about this and decided to try out the dogs themselves. From Kentucky, where some of the earliest work took place, beagles were taken up in Scandinavia, where a lot of the world experts in periodontology were located, so you get a fun and unexpected transnational nexus of beagle periodontology.

I thought at first that there would be a fascinating cultural history to the fact that we humans have “canines” in our mouth, but that never really materialized in my searches. What did emerge from looking into the topic was just how little academic history there is about dentistry or dental science. You can pretty much count the entire output of the last few decades of academic history of dentistry and teeth on one hand. As I see it, the separation between “dentistry” and “medicine” which holds in schools and practice is reflected in academic attention. Much of the “history of dentistry” in the few journals that exist is mostly by practitioners reflecting on technological changes. Hopefully that will start to change soon!