The Mouse House
Making Mice: Standardizing Animals for American Biomedical
Research, 1900–1955. Karen A. Rader. xx + 299 pp.
Princeton University Press, 2004. $45.
By the mid-20th century, mice had become arguably the most
ubiquitous vertebrate experimental organism in biomedical research.
In Making Mice, Karen Rader explores how they came to have
this status, not only in institutional and scientific terms but also
within a much broader sociocultural context.
Rader's provocative history, which draws on a broad range of source
materials, from scientists' correspondence to imagery from popular
culture, focuses primarily on "JAX mice," so named for the
Roscoe B. Jackson Memorial Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, where
they were bred, or rather, inbred. Rader examines the perspectives
of various groups who have used these mice—not just those who
have done research with them at the Jackson Lab itself or have
purchased them for studies elsewhere, but also those who have used
them as "cultural icons"—U.S. policy makers, for
example, who in the mid-20th century promoted their use in
biomedical research, and in particular in the war on cancer. The
book makes an important contribution to the growing literature on
the history of biology and experimental organisms, with the
interplay between science and society as a backdrop. The reader
comes to understand both the scientific uses of the JAX mice and
their role in transforming biomedical research into "big
science" in the 20th century.
Some of the major changes in the biomedical research agenda over the
course of the first half of the 20th century can be traced through
the use of these mice, first for cancer research and later for
investigation of radiation damage. Rader does not focus on any one
line of research. Instead she develops an argument that not only did
inbred mice become "standardized" in the usual scientific
sense, they also came to be a crucial biomedical resource by serving
as a "standard"—as an iconic, conspicuous object
that could be used as a rallying point.
The development of standardized mice strains helped to resolve two
tensions in the domain of biomedical research. First, there were
ongoing debates about the potential artifactuality of manufactured
systems and technologies such as inbred mice as compared with
"natural" experimental systems, such as non-inbred mice or
organisms from the wild. Thus to use inbred mice was to make not
simply an experimental choice but an epistemological one, and their
popularity in turn shaped political and social negotiations about
funding for biomedical research, particularly for cancer. The study
of human diseases using standardized animal models has now become
routine practice, but its acceptability was established in large
part through the use of inbred mice, as Rader convincingly argues.
The second tension that Rader outlines (but unfortunately does not
explore in much detail) is the issue of the acceptance in American
culture of the use of animals as research subjects. Clearly mice
were not as socially valued as dogs, for instance, and the rise and
dominance of mice as experimental organisms thus can be seen not
only as a matter of scientific preference but as a culturally
embedded choice. Objections to the use of mice as subjects were even
more unlikely when it could be argued that pursuit of the research
was essential for human health.
The narrative is roughly chronological, focusing first on Clarence
Cook Little, the founder of the Jackson Laboratory. Little had
studied genetics at Harvard's Bussey Institute in the 1910s and as
part of his studies on inheritance of coat color had produced the
first inbred strain of mice. His vision for the Jackson Lab clearly
originated in his own research, and in particular in the idea that
pure-line mice were essential for doing experimental genetics. In
his early career, he was best known for an ongoing feud with fellow
cancer geneticist Maud Slye, who claimed (based on studies with mice
that were not inbred) that cancer was inherited in a simple,
recessive manner. This debate was covered even in popular magazines,
and Rader uses innovative source materials to make it clear that
Little was a public figure from early on, a fact that helped to lay
the groundwork for his academic career as an administrator and
In 1929, Little left his post as president of the University of
Michigan (where he had made some small-scale attempts to establish
institutes focused on research with inbred mice) and founded the
Jackson Lab with funding from a variety of philanthropies. The
timing proved crucial: Financial difficulties precipitated by the
stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression forced
Little to consider other means of support for research at the lab.
The sale of mouse strains to other researchers was not an obvious
solution (in part because of the tradition within biology of freely
sharing research resources), but eventually this became the primary
source of income for the lab.
In subsequent years, Little struggled to maintain active research
programs while simultaneously building the infrastructure for
raising great numbers of mice at the lab. He frequently faced
criticism that the enterprise was merely a commercial one, and he
was even confronted with a lawsuit claiming that the lab should lose
its nonprofit status and be forced to pay taxes on its prime piece
A turning point came in 1947, when a fire swept through Bar Harbor,
killing 14 people and tens of thousands of mice. In the aftermath of
this disaster, there was an unprecedented infusion of resources to
rebuild the lab, and the public and the research community supported
reestablishment of the mouse colonies, confirming the importance of
the lab both as a scientific institution and as a sociocultural one.
Numerous laboratories had come to depend on the Jackson Lab not only
for the supply of experimental strains but also as a critical
contact point between research groups, facilitating the shared
standards necessary for productive experimentation.
Later chapters are intriguing but do not follow as closely as the
reader might hope from the early part of the narrative. Rader
provides only tantalizing hints at the next installment in the
"mouse story." She examines the use of mice in studies of
radiation risk, and in an epilogue she looks toward present-day uses
of mice as experimental organisms.
Nonetheless, most of the book is extremely well written and enjoyable
to read—unusually so for a scholarly book. Good use is made
throughout of images, although there are a number of unfortunate errors
in the picture captions, such as reversed identification labels in
several group photographs. This is not just a history of inbred mice;
rather, as the title implies, it is an account of the "making"
of mice far outside the boundaries of the laboratory.—Rachel
A. Ankeny, History and Philosophy of Science, University of Sydney, Australia