Go back to article: Wired-up in white organdie: framing women’s scientific labour at the Burden Neurological Institute

Part I: Objects, not operators

‘Guinea Pig Girls’

After encountering any given story written about the BNI in the middle decades of the twentieth-century, the average newspaper reader might be forgiven for assuming that the ground-breaking research described to them had been conducted entirely by male scientists. Indeed, across the thirty years’ worth of press clippings included within the BNI Papers, just one image depicts a female employee of the Institute at work: a photograph of nurse Judy Henderson fixing electrodes to the head of a patient awaiting an EEG examination, printed as part of a ‘photo review’ celebrating the Institute’s achievements in the Bristol-based Gazette on 28 October 1972 (see Figure 1). Intended to inform a largely uninitiated readership about the BNI’s existence, activities and achievements, such press shots represent a simplified and self-conscious performance of daily research practices, albeit one mediated by the desires of commissioning editors and the aesthetic choices of visiting photographers (see Blair, 2015). As such, these photographs might gesture towards some of the unspoken assumptions about the gendered division of labour within the neuroscientific laboratory. With her activities framed as a supportive act of patient care, rather than a direct contribution to research, Henderson’s photograph suggests a distinct and limited role for women in the BNI’s work. This division between male intellectual and female carer is bolstered by the position of the photograph on the page, flanked by images of white-shirted male scientists engrossed in their work at the helm of imposing and expensive pieces of high-tech machinery (see Figures 2 and 3).

Figure 1

Newspaper clipping showing a nurse fixing electrodes to a patients head in a laboratory

‘Miss Judy Henderson fixing electrodes to a patient’s head so the electroencephalograph can measure the brain’s electrical activity’

The Gazette, ‘Photo Review: Burden Neurological Institute’, 28 October 1972. BURD/A/06/117, BNI Papers, SMG

Figure 2

Newspaper clipping showing a scientist sitting before a computer from 1972

‘Ray Cooper, the Institute’s scientific director, with the £20,000 computer that summarises patients’ responses to stimuli’

The Gazette, ‘Photo Review: Burden Neurological Institute’, 28 October 1972. BURD/A/06/117, BNI Papers, SMG

Figure 3

Newspaper clipping showing a psychologist sitting before an electroencephalograph from 1972

‘The television shows a representation of the brain’s electrical activity, which will change when the patient is subject to stimuli. Psychologist Dr Cheyne McCallum operates the electroencephalograph’

The Gazette, ‘Photo Review: Burden Neurological Institute’, 28 October 1972. BURD/A/06/117, BNI Papers, SMG

However, rather than focusing on employees such as Henderson, published photographs of the BNI far more commonly identified women as the objects and subjects of neuroscientific research. A typical example of this can be seen in a set of press photographs taken in the laboratories of the BNI in 1970, during a period of intensified media interest about the Institute’s work on computerising the diagnosis of conditions ranging from schizophrenia to chronic migraine. In the first image, besuited neurologist Demetrios Papakostopoulos is shown at the controls of an EEG while an anonymous young woman sits in the next room, constrained by a mass of wires and electrodes (see Figure 4). The image establishes a clear division between male experimenter and female participant, made all the more explicit by their physical separation either side of the dividing wall and curtain.

Figure 4

Black and white photograph of a neurologist seated before an EEG with a patient in the adjacent room

Dr Demetrios Papakostopoulos and an unidentified subject, 1970

A striking feature of these and similar press shots taken in the BNI’s laboratories during this period is the flexibility with which they were deployed across different newspaper accounts. Rather than depicting specific research practices related to the piece at hand, newspapers would often utilise the same image of a female subject to accompany diverse stories ranging from the EEG testing of juvenile delinquents to new investigations into Parkinson’s disease. While the repeated use of these photographs was no doubt partially the result of constraints placed upon editorial decision-making by tight deadlines and limited resources, the end result was that the image of the passive, restrained ‘Guinea Pig Girl’ – as one 1973 article in the Western Daily Press described such volunteers – became common visual shorthand for neuroscientific power and knowledge.[8]

This bolstering of male authority through depictions of the female body was not a new development in the visual culture of scientific research. Indeed, as Katharine Park has argued (2006, pp 91–120), such strategies can be traced back at least as far as the sixteenth-century, when writers on human anatomy utilised painstaking diagrams of the ‘mysterious’ female body as a way of proclaiming their unique knowledge and expertise. However, photographers visiting the BNI drew inspiration from far more recent sources: namely, visual depictions of new ‘truth-telling’ technologies which emerged in laboratory studies of the human body at the turn of the twentieth-century (see Dror, 1999). Nowhere was this more apparent than in coverage of the polygraph, or ‘lie detector’. Photographs of the polygraph in action frequently opposed the cool, detached male operator with the passive, restrained female subject as a way of staging the triumph of (masculine) scientific reason over (feminine) deception (Bunn, 2012, pp 148–152). This visual model could be applied with ease to the EEG. While researchers at the BNI repeatedly asserted that the recording of brainwaves gave no such insight into domains of truth or falsehood, repeated requests from journalists for demonstrations of the EEG’s ‘mind-reading’ abilities suggested a pervasive connection between electroencephalography and lie detection in the popular imaginary.[9]

This objectification of the female research subject as submissive, restrained and voyeuristically observed inspired some photographers to stage women’s interactions with neuroscientific machinery as a kind of erotic encounter. As Lisa Cartwright (1995, pp 154–159) proposes in her examination of the X-ray in twentieth-century public health films, the power of diagnostic technologies to penetrate the body’s surface and reveal its inner secrets can often be communicated through an eroticised male gaze directed at an exposed female body. This is certainly present in many of the press photographs taken of female subjects within the laboratories of the BNI, which were often framed in such a way as to linger upon parts of the body exposed for experimental purposes, such as blood pressure readings taken from the thigh (see Figure 5). Such images were frequently accompanied by captions that emphasised the methods of physical restraint involved in taking such readings, with young women ‘wired-up’ to machines and kept immobilised for extended periods of time.[10] These kinds of depictions were, of course, far from unique to depictions of neuroscientific research, instead forming part of a post-war ‘mainstreaming’ of erotically-presented female bodies across advertising, celebrity photography and photojournalism (Solinger, 2001, pp 205–209; see also Serra, 2009, p 454; Kozol, 1994, pp 35–41; Goffman, 1976). In photographs of the BNI, however, this employment of the exposed female body served a further purpose, beyond voyeuristic spectacle or advertising strategy: to bolster the truth-telling credentials of neuroscience and its (assumed male) practitioners.

Figure 5

Black and white photograph of a neurologist seated before a female patient

Dr Demetrios Papakostopoulos and an unidentified subject, 1970

This visual dichotomy between male experimenter and female subject was so pervasive in photojournalistic accounts of the BNI’s work that it even extended to female employees, not just the stand-in models who often populated newspaper images. For example, in a photograph taken by Larry Burrows as part of a 1958 Life magazine story about the BNI’s EEG research programme, Janet Shipton is staged as a participant in an experiment designed to evaluate the effect of strobe lighting on the electrical activity of the brain (see Figure 6). Despite her active involvement in this very research project, neither the image nor the accompanying text frame Shipton as a scientific collaborator. Instead, the article emphasises her family pedigree (as the daughter of ex-Prime Minister Clement Attlee) and her marital status (with her husband, Harold Shipton, employed as an electrical engineer at the Institute). As well as revealing unspoken assumptions among photographers, writers and editors about the appropriate role of women in neuroscientific research projects, this positioning of Shipton through the familial labels of ‘daughter’ and ‘wife’ indicates towards another prevalent framing of women’s labour within the BNI’s laboratories.

Figure 6

Newspaper clipping showing a triple exposure photograph that shows Lady Janet Shipton flinching from light

‘Triple exposure shows Lady Janet Shipton flinching from light’, Life, ‘Electronic Patterns of the Brain’ / ‘The Love Machine Tests Compatibility’, 9 April 1956. BURD/A/06/113, BNI

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181003/003