Robert Kirk

Robert Kirk, BA, MA, PhD

Dr

  • Centre for the History of Science Technology and Medicine (CHSTM), Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health, Simon Building 2nd Floor RM 2.71

    M13 9PL University of Manchester, Manchester

    United Kingdom

Personal profile

Biography

I studied History and History of Science at Lancaster University, where I developed an interest in the role of the life sciences in shaping how we understand ourselves as ‘human’. Moving to the then Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine at the University of East Anglia, I embarked on studying the interconnectedness of human and nonhuman animals within medical and scientific cultures. In 2006, having completed a PhD at the then Wellcome Centre for the History of Medicine, University College London (UCL), I joined the Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine (CHSTM) at the University of Manchester.

Distinctive contributions of my work include:

  • Utilising historical narrative as a resource to understand questions of contemporary relevance.
  • Demonstrating the relevance of investigating science, technology and medicine through the interdisciplinary lens of multi-species relations.
  • Investigating the historical emergence and transformation of moral values within medical science and health practices with specific focus on animal research
  • Exploring how social and material relations shape medical knowledge and identity and how affective (subjective) relations have been managed and harnessed within health practices.

In 2009, supported by the Animals and Society Institute (USA), I was a Visiting Research Fellow at Duke University Program in Women's Studies. This allowed me to develop an understanding of how the emerging field of 'Animal Studies' can productively inform the history of science, technology and medicine. In 2010, supported by the European Science Foundation, I was a visiting researcher at the Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture (University of Oslo). I have received invitations to speak to interdisciplinary audiences at world-class research centres including the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (2008), National Institutes of Health (USA, 2010), the Kennedy Institute of Ethics (USA, 2012), the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters (2016), NYU Shanghai (2017) and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University (2017).

Research interests

I study health in its broadest context understood as an emergent process shaped by historically situated interdependencies that connect human and nonhuman life to the wider planetary environment. My work often examines non-human animals in human cultures, particularly nonhuman roles in science, medicine and technology as well as the place of animals in history and historical writing. I’m interested in how lived relationships drive historical change, shaping the always emergent cultures, identities, knowledge, practices, and values which make up our changing understandings of health and wellbeing.

Multispecies Medicine: Biotherapy and the Ecological Vision of Health and Wellbeing.

How might our perceptions of medicine, health and well-being change if they were thought of as more than human concerns? Whilst on first impression society may appear human, on closer examination it can be seen to consist of a multitude of species, human and nonhuman, sharing varied and complex relationships. Whether we think of the companion animals sharing our homes, the animals we farm, wildlife within urban and rural environments, or the microbes that inhabit our bodies, everyday human life is permeated by more than human relationships.

Supported by a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award I lead a team of researchers studying how medicine has formed various partnerships with nonhuman species to enhance health and wellbeing in everyday and clinical settings. We are interested in the contribution of service animals, such as guide dogs, diabetes alert dogs, and emotional support animals, to the enhancement of wellbeing within society. In the clinical setting, we examine the use of maggots to treat chronic wounds and the post-surgical use of leeches to maintain blood flow and assist recovery. In each case, human health and well-being rests on the cultivation of interdependencies with other species. Reconstructing the historical development and current use of varied examples of what I call 'multispecies medicine' allows our collective research to open up new perspectives on health as an interdependent relation with nonhuman life. By exploring a view of health and wellbeing attentive to something akin to a shared interspecies moral ecology, we hope to encourage thinking about health as an ongoing process of ‘becoming well together’.

Reliable Animals, Responsible Scientists: the moral ecology of animal research and animal welfare.

What is the relationship between the use of animals in scientific research and the growth of concern for the health, welfare and wellbeing of animals in wider society? Conventionally, the question of the acceptable use of nonhuman animals to serve human ends is thought to be at its most divisive in the context of animal research. By examining how moral concerns for animal welfare emerged with and through the changing needs of experimental science, I am trying to develop a more nuanced understanding which traces how scientific and societal uses of and concerns for animals have shaped and been shaped by each other over time. I am interested in how, why, and to what consequence, concern for the nonhuman animals in the laboratory emerged across the twentieth-century. I investigate the historical co-emergence of new identities (e.g. Animal Technicians), modes of animal care (e.g. laboratory animal medicine), technologies (Individually Ventilated Cages), understandings of animals (e.g. environment enrichment) and ethical principles (e.g. the Reduction, Refinement and Replacement of experimental animals or 3Rs). In doing so, I reconstruct the historical emergence of a now dominant ‘science’ of animal welfare and its specific form of ethical reasoning within which moral concerns for, and instrumental uses of, nonhuman animals become inseparable.

The Animal Research Nexus: Changing Constitutions of Science, Health and Welfare

Supported by a Wellcome Trust Collaborator Award, I work with Gail Davies (Exeter), Pru Hobson-West (Nottingham), Beth Greenhough (Oxford) and Emma Roe (Southampton), leading a team investigating how the humanities and social sciences might contribute to understanding and advancing laboratory animal science and welfare. We have published a collective agenda for ‘Humanities and Social Scientific Research on Laboratory Animal Science and Welfare’ to this end. We see animal research as a scientific and social activity. To properly understand it, we need to be sensitive to culture, time and place. The scientific community cannot achieve this alone. But nor can the humanities and social sciences understand animal research productively without collaborating with practitioners and stakeholder communities. Only by working together can we develop a mutual understanding through which new contributions to knowledge become possible. Our intervention is premised on the conceit that the humanities and social science have hitherto approached animal research practitioners as objects of study rather than collaborators in knowledge production. We believe a collaborative approach is essential for understanding how rapid transformations across science and society are changing the patterns of responsibility, trust and care which hold together, or constitute, animal research and the social contract which sustains it. A more participatory approach, we hope, will create new shared ways of understanding, responding to and practicing animal research. To achieve this we seek to understand animal research as ‘nexus’ emphasising overlaps between topics previously considered separately. Our nexus approach examines independencies between disciplines, the challenges arising from overlooked connections, and the opportunities for more collaborative research, policy and public engagement. We suggest that making visible and reconceptualising connections and interdependencies across animal research will generate communication and foster the development of shared understanding which in turn contributes to improved animal research.

Translational Relations

I am studying how human-animal relations shaped 20th century psychiatry, psychopharmacology and medicine. This research has an analytic focus about transitioning and translating knowledge and practice between bodies (human/nonhuman), sites (laboratory/clinic) and across disciplines. By identifying social, cultural, economic, institutional and other factors that catalyzed or hindered translation, my work contributes to understanding contemporary policy and practice of translational medicine (with a focus on mental health).

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I'm also interested in changing understandings of sensory experience and the history of our relations with microbes from hospital cross-infection to the science of germ-free life and the microbiome.

Collectively, my research adopts a historically grounded interdisciplinary approach to understand how processes of relating, between and within species, have critical implications for who we have been, are, and yet may be.

Teaching

I contribute to a number of taught courses offered by CHSTM at all levels and supervise individual research projects at undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral levels.

I welcome postgraduate and doctoral inquiries from candidates wishing to undertake research projects in the following areas from medical historical and/or wider humanities perspectives:

  • The role of non-human animals in modern culture, particularly science, medicine and technology, veterinary medicine, comparative medicine and ‘one medicine’.
  • Topics addressing the biomedical sciences, psychiatry, neuropsychopharmacology, the behavioural sciences, evolutionary psychiatry and mental health.
  • Topics addressing moral values and ethics in science, medicine and technology (inc. medical ethics, bioethics and the regulation of human and animal research).
  • Topics investigating human-microbe relations, including bacteria, infection and the 'microbiome'.

 

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being
  • SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities

External positions

Peer Review College, Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC)

1 Jan 2017 → …

Medical Humanities Early Career Researcher Expert Review Group , The Wellcome Trust

1 Nov 2016 → …

Keywords

  • Centre for the History of Science Technology and Medicine CHSTM
  • Medical Humanities
  • Animal Studies
  • History

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