iCHSTM 2013 Programme • Version 5.3.6, 27 July 2013 • ONLINE (includes late changes)
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Between human and animal astronauts: anthropomorphizing monkeys in early American space medicine
Jordan Bimm | York University, Canada

This paper investigates the historical case of Able and Baker, two monkeys that together in May, 1959, became the first non-human primates successfully recovered from a spaceflight. Before and during this experiment, Able and Baker were treated like instruments—anatomical models of human bodies used to generate biological data about the new physical stresses that future astronauts might face. But following the flight, Able and Baker became anthropomorphized in a number of different ways by military doctors, the media, and the general public. Once regarded only as generic models of the amorphous “human factor” in a risky space experiment, Able and Baker were suddenly cast the image of specific (American) human archetypes for public relations purposes.

This paper explores this transformation in human regard for Able and Baker in a number of medical, scientific, and cultural contexts. Following the experiment, Able (a female rhesus monkey supplied by the Army) was anthropomorphized by medical doctors and science journalists who suddenly took her up as an important human patient. Following her untimely death, Able was again transformed, this time into a male caricature of “the American astronaut” as a taxidermy exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and as a character in the 2009 feature film Night At the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. I also examine how Baker (a female squirrel monkey supplied by the Navy), who survived much longer in captivity than Able, was cast by her human handlers as a domestic American housewife—they dubbed her “Miss Baker”, wished she would “settle down and start a family”, and even organized a “marriage” to a male monkey “husband”.

Using the approach of “animal biography” from animal studies, I attend to the different ways in which each monkey was remade into an unwilling celebrity representative for American space exploration, and how connections to cold war science, technology, medicine, and the military, shifted human regard for the monkeys from non-specific human models, to models of specific humans. I also pay special attention to how Able’s controversial death resulted in bitter friction between Army and Navy doctors over best practices. Additionally, this paper brings into focus how these specific acts of animal person-making reveal deep-seated assumptions about human gender roles during the cold war, and more generally, reflects critically on how and why animals used in high-profile, medical experiments often come to be regarded as “more human” afterward.

I suggest that this anthropomorphizing of certain monkeys in American space medicine during the cold war was appealing because it masked the casual violence and lack of choice that these animals were subject to, and because it rendered “natural” the political and military impulses that fuelled early space exploration.