Irritating Experiments

Haller’s Concept and the European Controversy on Irritability and Sensibility, 1750-90


One of the great medical controversies of the Enlightenment was the European debate on motion, sensation, and animal experimentation provoked by Albrecht von Haller’s treatise on irritability and sensibility (1752).
Irritating Experiments is the first full-length study to explore the theoretical background and the experimental process that led to Haller's description and separation of two fundamental bodily qualities: irritability, or the capacity of muscles to contract upon stimulation, and sensibility, or the capacity of the nervous system to transmit impressions that are felt as touch or pain in humans, or produce signs of pain in animals.
This new concept presented a serious challenge to the reigning medical systems. Haller’s animal experiments were repeated all over Europe, on a scale never seen before. The results, however, were contradictory. Haller's concept was largely rejected, and animal experimentation could not be established as a major research method in physiology. Focussing on procedural aspects of experimentation, the interaction between experiment and theory, the status of surgery, the use of medical and pathological models, and the culture of criticism, Irritating Experiments tries to explain why.
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Hubert Steinke is currently a research assistant at both the Universities of Bern and Zurich. He received his MD and MA from Bern and his PhD from Oxford University. His publications include books and articles on Haller, the Republic of Letters, and popular medicine in early modern Europe
”…Steinke’s book is a liberation… The topic is both boundless and intricate, involving such disparate fields as science, literature, art, and philosophy… Steinke manages to steer deftly through this complexity […] and the cultural landscape he shows us is one that only a wide-open window can offer.”
in: Bulletin for the History of Medicine, Vol. 81, 2007

“…an important contribution to the history of eighteenth-century medicine.”
in: Metascience, Vol. 16, 2007. Pp. 157–160

“…Grounded upon an impressive knowledge of primary and secondary sources…this book provides a breath-taking narrative of one of the most complex chapters in the history of physiology. It is convincing both in its treatment of the more theoretical aspects of eighteenth-century physiology and in its detailed discussion and interpretation of the animal experiments… However, the book reaches its apogee when it reconstructs the controversy provoked by Haller’s experiments, providing a model analysis.” 
in: Journal of the History of Medicine, Vol. 62, 2007

“I liked this book… [Irritating Experiments] needed to be written, especially in English, because it fills a rather large hole in the history of laboratory-based medical theories, and also provides a helpful resource for those interested in the uptake of Haller’s ideas throughout Europe. I have no doubt that I will be recommending it to historians at future conferences.” in: The British Journal for the History of Science 40 (2007), pp. 610-611

“…a detailed examination of Haller’s convictions and their reception in the second half of the 18th century.”
in: Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, Vol. 24, No 1 (2007), 479-480
List of Figures

1 Theories of Animal Motion before 1750
2 Experimentation in the Göttingen Laboratory
3 Haller’s Changing Views on Irritability and Sensibility

4 The Uses of Experiment
5 Irritability, Sensibility, and Medical Philosophy
6 The Debate and the Medical and Public Sphere
7 Conclusion

Appendix: The Spread of Experiment
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