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“Essential Collaborators”: Locating Middle Eastern Geneticists in the Global Scientific Infrastructure, 1950s–1970s

  • Elise K. Burton (a1)

In the aftermath of World War II, a new international infrastructure based on United Nations agencies took charge of coordinating global biomedical research. Through this infrastructure, European and American geneticists hoped to collect and test blood samples from human populations across the world to understand processes of human heredity and evolution and trace the historical migrations of different groups. They relied heavily on local scientific workers to help them identify and access populations of interest, although they did not always acknowledge the critical role non-Western collaborators played in their studies. Using scientific publications, personal correspondence, and oral histories, I investigate the collaborative relationships between Western scientists, their counterparts in the Middle East, and the human subjects of genetic research. I comparatively examine the experiences of Israeli and Iranian scientists and physicians engaged in genetic anthropology and medical genetics between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s, noting how they both applied nationalist historical narratives to their genetic data and struggled to establish the value of their local knowledge and scientific labor. I argue that the Israeli and Iranian experience of transnational scientific collaboration is representative of how Western scientists relegated their collaborators from “developing” regions to a subordinate positionality as collection agents or native informants. Meanwhile, within their own countries, the elite professional identity of Israeli and Iranian scientists granted them the authority to manipulate their research subjects, who often belonged to marginalized minority communities, and to interpret their biology and history within contexts of Jewish and Persian nationalism.

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1 Wyman, Leland C. and Boyd, William C., “Human Blood Groups and Anthropology,” American Anthropologist 37, 2 (1935): 181200 , 198. During this period, human genetics was not a well-defined field of inquiry and most of its practitioners initially rose to prominence within more established scientific disciplines. Accordingly, throughout this paper, I use “geneticists” as a shorthand for the scientists and physicians trained in physical anthropology, evolutionary biology, biochemistry, and medical pathology (especially hematology and serology, the study of blood and serum, respectively) whose careers converged around various questions of human heredity.

2 Little, Michael A., “Human Population Biology in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century,” Current Anthropology 53, S5 (2012): S126S138 , S132.

3 de Chadarevian, Soraya, “Following Molecules: Hemoglobin between the Clinic and the Laboratory,” in de Chadarevian, Soraya and Kamminga, Harmke, eds., Molecularizing Biology and Medicine: New Practices and Alliances, 1910s–1970s (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1998), 171201 , 179; Dacie, John, “Hermann Lehmann, 8 July 1910–13 July 1985,” Biographical Memoirs of the Fellows of the Royal Society 34 (1988): 406–49, 412–14.

4 Radin, Joanna, “Unfolding Epidemiological Stories: How the WHO Made Frozen Blood into a Flexible Resource for the Future,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 47 (2014): 6273 , 68; Radin, Joanna, “Latent Life: Concepts and Practices of Human Tissue Preservation in the International Biological Program,” Social Studies of Science 43, 4 (2013): 484508 , 499.

5 Mourant, Arthur E., Blood and Stones: An Autobiography (La Haule, Jersey: La Haule Books, 1995), 6062 ; Chadarevian, “Following Molecules,” 185; Candau, Marcolino Gomes, “The Work of WHO, 1965: Annual Report of the Director-General to the World Health Assembly and to the United Nations,” Official Records (Geneva: World Health Organization, Mar. 1966), 5354 .

6 Little, “Human Population Biology,” S132.

7 Radin, “Unfolding Epidemiological Stories,” 63. See also Clarke, Sabine, “A Technocratic Imperial State? The Colonial Office and Scientific Research, 1940–1960,” Twentieth Century British History 18, 4 (2007): 453–80.

8 The notable absence of the USSR from the early stages of this unofficial competition can be attributed to the iron grip of Lysenkoism on Soviet genetics research until 1965. Soviet scientists would eventually join in the International Biological Program, in the early 1970s. See Bauer, Susanne, “Mutations in Soviet Public Health Science: Post-Lysenko Medical Genetics, 1969–1991,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 47 (Sept. 2014): 163–72.

9 Letter from Mourant to Boyd, 11 June 1965, PP/AEM/K.13, box 28, A. E. Mourant Papers, Wellcome Library, London (hereafter “Mourant Papers”).

10 Ibid. Harry Smith did not last much longer in Beirut; he shuttered the laboratory in August 1966, less than fourteen months after Mourant composed this letter. Letter from Paul Congdon to Victor Alan Clarke, 9 Aug. 1966, PP/AEM/K.157, box 34, Mourant Papers.

11 See, for example, Borofsky, Robert and Albert, Bruce, Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Might Learn from It (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 64; Anderson, Warwick, “Objectivity and Its Discontents,” Social Studies of Science 43, 4 (2013): 557–76; Widmer, Alexandra, “Making Blood ‘Melanesian’: Fieldwork and Isolating Techniques in Genetic Epidemiology (1963–1976),” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 47 (2014): 118–29.

12 Lindee, Susan, “Scaling Up: Human Genetics as a Cold War Network,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 47 (2014): 185–90, 189, referring to Radin, “Unfolding Epidemiological Stories,” 63. See also Bangham, Jenny, “Blood Groups and Human Groups: Collecting and Calibrating Genetic Data after World War Two,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 47 (2014): 7486 .

13 Anderson, Warwick and Pols, Hans, “Scientific Patriotism: Medical Science and National Self-Fashioning in Southeast Asia,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 54, 1 (2012): 93113 , 113.

14 See, for example, Donegani, Joyce A. et al. , “The Blood Groups of the People of Egypt,” Heredity 4, 3 (1950): 377–82; Ikin, Elizabeth W., “Blood Group Distribution in the Near East,” in Holländer, L., ed., Proceedings of the Seventh Congress of the International Society of Blood Transfusion, Rome, September 3–6, 1958 (Basel: S. Karger, 1959), 262–65; Ikin, Elizabeth W., Mourant, A. E., and Lehmann, H., “The Blood Groups and Haemoglobin of the Assyrians of Iraq,” Man 65 (July 1965): 110111 .

15 Houston, Christopher, “An Anti-History of a non-People: Kurds, Colonialism, and Nationalism in the History of Anthropology,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15 (2009): 1935 .

16 Schayegh, Cyrus, “Three Questions for Historians of Science in the Modern Middle East and North Africa,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 47, 3 (2015): 588–91.

17 My assessment of these circumstances is based on a diverse body of material, including oral history reports, published observations of Western visitors, and archived correspondence from Israeli and Iranian scientists to colleagues and funding agencies abroad. In addition to the archival sources cited below, interested readers may peruse Chaim Sheba's correspondence and reports on Tel-Hashomer Hospital to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (NY AR195564/4/33/17/385, JDC Archives); and Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, A Year in the Middle East: Expeditions in Iran and Afghanistan with Travels in Europe and North Africa, February 4, 1954 to December 22, 1954 (Bethesda: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, 1991).

18 To understand the interest of Western geneticists in “population isolates,” see, for example, Lipphardt, Veronika, “The Jewish Community of Rome: An Isolated Population? Sampling Procedures and Bio-Historical Narratives in Genetic Analysis in the 1950s,” BioSocieties 5, 3 (2010): 306–29.

19 In this paper, I use the term “native informant” not in a conventional anthropological sense but in reference to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's critique of postcolonial nationalist intellectuals, aiming to apply this critique to the biomedical sciences; A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).

20 Schaffer, Simon et al. , eds., The Brokered World: Go-Betweens and Global Intelligence, 1770–1820 (Sagamore Beach, Mass.: Science History Publications, 2009), xxixxx .

21 See ch. 2 in Schiebinger, Londa L., Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).

22 Bangham, “Blood Groups”; Lindee, Susan and Santos, Ricardo Ventura, “The Biological Anthropology of Living Human Populations: World Histories, National Styles, and International Networks: An Introduction to Supplement 5,” Current Anthropology 53, S5 (2012): S3S16 , S7.

23 My concept of “interstitial” is borrowed from Schayegh, Cyrus, “The Social Relevance of Knowledge: Science and the Formation of Modern Iran, 1910s–40s,” Middle Eastern Studies 43, 6 (2007): 941–60; Schayegh, , Who Is Knowledgeable, Is Strong: Science, Class, and the Formation of Modern Iranian Society, 1900–1950 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

24 Mattson, Greggor, “Nation-State Science: Lappology and Sweden's Ethnoracial Purity,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 56, 2 (2014): 320–50, 324.

25 Robertson, Jennifer, “Blood Talks: Eugenic Modernity and the Creation of New Japanese,” History and Anthropology 13, 3 (2002): 191216 ; Mukharji, Projit B., “From Serosocial to Sanguinary Identities: Caste, Transnational Race Science and the Shifting Metonymies of Blood Group B, India c. 1918–1960,” Indian Economic & Social History Review 51, 2 (2014): 143–76; Kent, M. et al. , “Building the Genomic Nation: ‘Homo Brasilis’ and the ‘Genoma Mexicano’ in Comparative Cultural Perspective,” Social Studies of Science 45, 6 (2015): 839–61.

26 I thank the anonymous CSSH reviewer who highlighted this issue.

27 The deficiency of the enzyme glucose-6-phosphate-dehydrogenase (G6PD), a condition often known as “favism” in individuals of Mediterranean descent, causes red blood cells (erythrocytes) to break down in the response to specific triggers, notably fava beans, certain anti-malarial drugs, and aspirin. Kirsh, Nurit, “Population Genetics in Israel in the 1950s: The Unconscious Internalization of Ideology,” Isis 94, 4 (2003): 631–55; El-Haj, Nadia Abu, The Genealogical Science: The Search for Jewish Origins and the Politics of Epistemology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 103–7.

28 Kirsh, Nurit, “Genetic Studies of Ethnic Communities in Israel: A Case of Values-Motivated Research Work,” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 72 (2007): 181–94, 192.

29 Dacie, “Hermann Lehmann,” 407.

30 Dreyfuss, Fritz and Benyesch, M., “Sickle-Cell Trait in Yemenite Jews,” Nature 167 (1951): 950.

31 See Dreyfuss, Fritz et al. , “An Investigation of Blood-Groups and a Search for Sickle-Cell Trait in Yemenite Jews,” Lancet 260, 6743 (1952): 1010–12.

32 Bonné-Tamir, Batsheva, Ḥayim ʻim ha-genim: ḥamishim shenot meḥḳar ba-geneṭiḳah shel ʻedot Yiśraʼel (Jerusalem: Karmel, 2010), 2224 .

33 Bonné, Batsheva, “The Samaritans: A Demographic Study,” Human Biology 35, 1 (1963): 6189 .

34 Bonné-Tamir, Ḥayim ʻim ha-genim, 43–50.

35 Mourant to Boyd, 22 Nov. 1962, PP/AEM/K.13, box 28, Mourant Papers.

36 Bonné-Tamir, Ḥayim ʻim ha-genim, 50.

37 Bonné to Mourant, 19 Feb. 1963, PP/AEM/K.8, box 28, Mourant Papers. Mourant, for his part, was nonplussed by the Samaritans’ behavior, writing to Leslie Dunn of the incident, “Unfortunately we came up against social and psychological factors which we did not understand, and work came to a full stop” (27 Sept. 1963, PP/AEM/K.21, box 29, Mourant Papers).

38 Bonné-Tamir, Ḥayim ʻim ha-genim, 55.

39 Bonné to Mourant, 3 Dec. 1963, PP/AEM/K.8, box 28, Mourant Papers.

40 Bonné to Mourant, 10 Oct. 1963, PP/AEM/K.8, box 28, Mourant Papers.

41 Bonné, Batsheva, “Genes and Phenotypes in the Samaritan Isolate,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 24, 1 (1966): 119 , 17.

42 Bonné-Tamir, Ḥayim ʻim ha-genim, 56.

43 Bonné to Mourant, 3 Dec. 1963, PP/AEM/K.8, box 28, Mourant Papers.

44 Bonné-Tamir, Ḥayim ʻim ha-genim, 64.

45 Mourant to Bonné, 26 June 1967, PP/AEM/K.10, box 28, Mourant Papers.

46 Mourant to Bonné, 11 Aug. 1967, PP/AEM/K.10, box 28, Mourant Papers.

47 Bonné to Mourant, 15 Feb. 1966, PP/AEM/K.9, box 28, Mourant Papers.

48 Bonné to Mourant, 17 Apr. 1969, PP/AEM/K.11, box 28, Mourant Papers (her emphasis).

49 Mukharji, “From Serosocial to Sanguinary Identities.”

50 “I should be extremely grateful if you would have a word, even if only on the phone, with Sheba, to try to break the deadlock about collaboration with Bonné. We have some extremely important results which we cannot publish until things are cleared up.” Mourant to Lehmann, 3 Aug. 1969, PP/AEM/K.336, box 41, Mourant Papers. He clarified in a further letter to Lehmann (4 Aug. 1969), “I am particularly anxious to maintain good relations with Sheba himself and all those colleagues such as Adam, Szeinberg etc with whom we have worked in harmony before. I also want to be on good terms with Batsheva but she is, as you know, a very difficult personality although a brilliant and charming woman.”

51 Bonné to M. Hauge, 28 Apr. 1970, PP/AEM/K.12, box 28, Mourant Papers.

52 Bonné to Mourant, 29 Apr. 1970, PP/AEM/K.12, box 28, Mourant Papers.

53 Tills to Bonné, 5 May 1970, PP/AEM/K.12, box 28, Mourant Papers (my emphasis).

54 Ibid.

55 See Bonné, Batsheva et al. , “The Habbanite Isolate I. Genetic Markers in the Blood,” Human Heredity 20, 6 (1970): 609–22; Bonné, Batsheva et al. , “South-Sinai Beduin: A Preliminary Report on Their Inherited Blood Factors,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 34, 3 (1971): 397408 .

56 Bonné to Mourant, 26 May 1970, PP/AEM/K.12, box 28, Mourant Papers (her emphasis).

57 Tills to Bonné, 5 May 1970, PP/AEM/K.12, box 28, Mourant Papers.

58 “James Bowman oral history interview, Session I—June 26, 2006,” Oral History of Human Genetics Collection (Ms. Coll. no. 316), History and Special Collections Division, Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library, UCLA (hereafter “Bowman oral history interview, 2006”).

59 Walker, Deryck G. and Bowman, James E., “Glutathione Stability of the Erythrocytes of Iranians,” Nature 184, 4695 (1959): 1325.

60 Bowman oral history interview, 2006.

61 Bowman, James E. and Walker, Deryck G., “Virtual Absence of Glutathione Instability of the Erythrocytes among Armenians in Iran,” Nature 191, 4785 (1961): 221–22, 222.

62 Ibid. The article cites the 1960 edition of Montagu's Introduction to Physical Anthropology (New York: Charles C. Thomas).

63 Sanasarian, Eliz, Religious Minorities in Iran (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 3540 .

64 Bowman, James E., “Haptoglobin and Transferrin Differences in Some Iranian Populations,” Nature 201 (1964): 88.

65 Bowman oral history interview, 2006.

66 Bowman, James E. and Walker, Deryck G., “The Origin of Glucose-6-Phosphate Dehydrogenase Deficiency in Iran: Theoretical Considerations,” in Gedda, Luigi, ed., Proceedings of the Second International Congress of Human Genetics (Rome, September 6–12, 1961), vol. 1 (Rome: Instituto G. Mendel, 1963), 583–86, 584.

67 Ibid.

68 Ibid., 585–86. Note that the conclusion of Bowman and his colleagues that Zoroastrians, by extension Aryans, were “reservoirs” of the B blood type differs markedly from contemporary genetic discourses emerging from India, where type B was associated with non-Aryan autochthonous populations. See Mukharji, “From Serosocial to Sanguinary Identities.”

69 Bowman, “Haptoglobin and Transferrin Differences,” 88.

70 Bowman oral history interview, 2006.

71 Beaconsfield, Peter et al. , “Glucose 6 Phosphate Dehydrogenase Deficiency in Iran and Its Relation to Physiopathological Processes,” Acta Medica Iranica 9, 1–2 (1966): 3542 . The survey was carried out in response to the WHO-sponsored malaria eradication program for Iran, which relied heavily on the use of primaquine—a medication that can cause a dangerous hemolytic reaction when taken in multiple doses by individuals with G6PD deficiency.

72 Lehmann, Hermann et al. , “The Hereditary Blood Factors of the Kurds of Iran,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 266 (1973): 195205 , 196.

73 Mourant to Lehmann, 3 Aug. 1969, PP/AEM/K/336, box 41, Mourant Papers (my emphasis).

74 Bowman, James E., Middle East Journal 23, 2 (1969): 288–89, 289.

75 Bowman oral history interview, 2006.

76 For example, his Iranian students, carrying on his genetic research program, chose to publish in Israeli journals; see Mohallatee, Ekmal A. and Haghshenas, Mansoor, “Frequency and Distribution of ABO and Rh(D) Blood Groups in Shiraz,” Israel Journal of Medical Sciences 5, 5 (1969): 1081–82.

77 The human leukocyte antigen (HLA) system is a highly diverse series of cell-surface proteins that allows the immune system to distinguish between the body's own cells and foreign matter. By the early 1970s, the seemingly unlimited variability of the HLA proteins, and the genes that encode them, drew the attention of genetic anthropologists who hoped to use them to study human evolutionary history at a finer scale than previously possible.

78 Sheba, Chaim, “Jewish Migration in Its Historical Perspective,” Israel Journal of Medical Sciences 7, 12 (1971): 1333–41, 1339–40.

79 Ibid., 1336–37.

80 Ibid., 1336.

81 See Der Matossian, Bedross, “The Armenians of Palestine 1918–48,” Journal of Palestine Studies 41, 1 (2011): 2444 .

82 Bonné-Tamir, Batsheva et al. , “HLA Polymorphism in Israel 8: The Armenian Community in Jerusalem,” Tissue Antigens 11, 3 (1978): 230–34, 231.

83 Bonné-Tamir, Ḥayim ʻim ha-genim, 110.

84 Bonné-Tamir et al., “HLA Polymorphism in Israel 8.”

85 Ibid., 230–31.

86 Batsheva Bonné, “Chaim Sheba (1908–1971),” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 36, 3 (1972): 308–13, 312.

87 Bonné-Tamir, Batsheva et al. , “HLA Polymorphism in Israel: 9. An Overall Comparative Analysis,” Tissue Antigens 11, 3 (1978): 235–50, 248.

88 Tabatabai, Hamideh, Mohammad, K., and Mohagheghpour, Nahid, “HLA Antigens in Two Iranian Populations: The Armenians and The Jews,” Tissue Antigens 12, 5 (1978): 309–14, 309.

89 The authors further identified Armenians as racially “Mongolo-Aryan”; ibid., 310.

90 Ibid., 314.

91 Sheba, “Jewish Migration.”

92 Mohagheghpour to Bodmer, 8 Dec. 1976; and Bodmer to Mohagheghpour, 24 Jan. 1977, MS Bodmer 94, fol. 1, Bodleian Library. As further evidence of Bonné’s recommendation of Sheba's work, Tabatabai's 1977 thesis, completed before the corresponding article went to press, does not include the reference to Sheba.

93 Hamideh Tabatabai, “Barrasī-yi muqāyisah-ī zhinitīk-i īrāniyān-i armanī va yahūdī” (M. Sc. thesis, University of Tehran, 1977). I thank Ehsan Amini for providing a copy of the thesis.

94 Oral history interview with James E. Bowman, 27 Sept. 2002. The HistoryMakers Digital Archive, (accessed Mar. 2016).

95 Bangham, “Blood Groups,” 11.

96 See Mattson, “Nation-State Science.”

97 Anderson and Pols, “Scientific Patriotism,” 97.

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