Life on Ice A History of New Uses for Cold Blood
by Joanna Radin
University of Chicago Press, 2017
Cloth: 978-0-226-41731-8 | Electronic: 978-0-226-44824-4


After the atomic bombing at the end of World War II, anxieties about survival in the nuclear age led scientists to begin stockpiling and freezing hundreds of thousands of blood samples from indigenous communities around the world. These samples were believed to embody potentially invaluable biological information about genetic ancestry, evolution, microbes, and much more. Today, they persist in freezers as part of a global tissue-based infrastructure. In Life on Ice, Joanna Radin examines how and why these frozen blood samples shaped the practice known as biobanking.
The Cold War projects Radin tracks were meant to form an enduring total archive of indigenous blood before it was altered by the polluting forces of modernity. Freezing allowed that blood to act as a time-traveling resource. Radin explores the unique cultural and technical circumstances that created and gave momentum to the phenomenon of life on ice and shows how these preserved blood samples served as the building blocks for biomedicine at the dawn of the genomic age. In an era of vigorous ethical, legal, and cultural debates about genetic privacy and identity, Life on Ice reveals the larger picture—how we got here and the promises and problems involved with finding new uses for cold human blood samples.


Joanna Radin is assistant professor of the history of medicine at Yale University, where she also holds appointments in history and anthropology.


“In the era of global warming, modern science has entered its first ice age. With brilliant sangfroid and cool postcolonial discernment, Radin shows how the vast new ecosystems of frozen life that surround us give insight into our pasts and futures. A sanguine and utterly compelling story, Life on Ice reveals that the appropriation and mobilization of millions of frozen specimens—bits of persons—have accompanied and even made possible the globalization of biomedical science.”
— Warwick Anderson, author of The Collectors of Lost Souls

“In this deeply humane, imaginative, and beautifully written book, Radin provides a poignant and practical account of the profound questions of knowledge, ethics, and justice that result from the seemingly mundane act of freezing. When our blood and tissue can be frozen, how does it alter experiences of life and death? What are the appropriate uses of our newly immortal bodies, and who gets to decide? Life on Ice is essential reading for scientists, historians, and citizens who must grapple with the promise and perils of biomedical innovation, forensic investigations, and knowledge formation premised on access to life suspended and infinitely extended in frozen animation.”
— Jenny Reardon, author of The Postgenomic Condition: Ethics, Justice, and Knowledge after the Genome

“Radin does more in Life on Ice than tell the lively history of twentieth century technologies of freezing, the implications for storage of blood, and the ‘latent’ life conserved within—she constructs sophisticated visual metaphors as her framework of analysis. Using language that correlates temperature with temporality, Radin reveals how scientific salvation narratives are co-constituted with settler nationalist narratives of progress. Both are predicated on hierarchies of social life in which indigenous peoples and other ‘primitives’ serve as raw materials for the production of Western nation states. Her tracing of bioscience genealogies will challenge attentive scientists to consider different narrative and ethical paths forward.”
— Kim TallBear, author of Native American DNA

"Her sharply original history focuses on serum collected from indigenous communities and frozen during the cold war. Some samples have had a starry afterlife: one from the Belgian Congo, taken in 1959, later became the oldest trace of HIV/AIDS on record. Radin sweeps from the emergence of cryonics to the rise of genomics — and from burning ethical debates over indigenous rights to ancestral remains."
— Nature


DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226448244.003.0001
This book examines how and why frozen blood samples—in particular those collected from colonial or newly postcolonial regions in the decades after World War II—became a resource for biomedical science. It is a history of a phenomenon known as biobanking, in which bits of tissues from humans and nonhumans are stored at very low temperatures for future research. It is the ability to hold still biological substances at various degrees of low temperature that has enabled such materials to become incredibly mutable and mobile, able to be manipulated, relocated, and recombined to answer questions other than the ones for which they were initially extracted from the body. Examining the history of the biobank in terms of low-temperature tissue-based infrastructure makes it possible to know how ideas about what life is and how it has been valued have changed and continue to change over time.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226448244.003.0002
[latent life;suspended animation;cryopreservation;cryobiology]
This chapter describes the history of cryobiology and its role in the creation of the biomedical infrastructure known as the biobank. The concepts and practices involved in making life capable of being successfully frozen and thawed grew from the thermodynamic interactions of biology and industry, medicine and the military, from the nineteenth century through the Cold War. Technologies of cold storage, developed initially for the preservation of the flesh of dead livestock and later for the maintenance of their living gametes, found their way into the biomedical laboratory through multiple channels. The chapter explores this history through the career of a Catholic priest and biophysicist named Basile Luyet who, in the 1930s, cultivated a cosmology of cold that revolved around efforts to understand what he called “latent life." For Luyet, latency—a form of suspended animation—was a liminal space between active life and certain death that could be used to probe the ambiguous boundary between the two states. Latency would also come to refer to untapped or concealed potential of life or life forms that had been redirected in time through the use of low temperature.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226448244.003.0003
[temporality;anticipation;World Health Organization;epidemiology;surveillance;biosecurity]
The blood of members of so-called primitive groups was thought to contain a quarry of potentially invaluable information that would reveal itself as new molecular techniques emerged.In the circumpolar North, ideas about the ability to salvage and preserve blood to serve the biomedical “as yet unknown” emerged out of the United States’ military’s mineral and medical prospecting efforts. Alaska Native peoples’ bodies—along with their lands—were mined to support the ascendancy of America as a superpower not only in the realm of politics but also in life science. I describe how the Yale epidemiologist John Rodman Paul used his experience collecting blood in the vicinity of a United States naval base in the American territories of the far north to justify a broader program of blood-based surveillance that was ultimately adopted by the World Health Organization.It was expected that, if properly preserved, blood samples could and would be mined repeatedly, each time identifying novel elements, including ones not even anticipated by those who created the collection.Despite epidemiologists’ claims that their techniques were expanding the possibilities for medicine and public health, they often dismissed forms of local knowledge not produced in the laboratory, including subjects’ own memories of epidemics.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226448244.003.0004
[temporality;baseline;salvage;human genetics;International Biological Program;adaptability]
This chapter complements the previous one by considering how the project of collecting blood was articulated by human geneticists, who looked as much to the past as to the future. They believed that adaptations present in the blood of their “primitive” subjects would, in time, be revealed as the products of natural selection to particular environments. As ionizing radiation from nuclear tests and potential nuclear warfare threatened to scramble these signals from the past, many scientists invested in the importance of creating an archive of evidence what it had been like to be a human supposedly solely “relying on his biological endowment.” These scientists were members of organizations that had been created after the Second World War, including the World Health Organization and the decade-long International Biological Program (IBP). They invoked the concept of the baseline to construct the “primitive” as the uncontaminated normal standard by which the citizen of modernity could measure his own pollution by technoscientific society.A worldwide survey of biological variation, such as that supported by the IBP, would also be a means for American scientists to enact scientific internationalism in the service of salvaging a fleshy record of universal humanity.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226448244.003.0005
[cold chain;collection;R/V Alpha Helix;scientific diplomacy;fieldwork]
This chapter analyzes the three separate human biology expeditions undertaken with the help of a National Science Foundation-sponsored floating laboratory known as the R/VAlpha Helix in the 1970s.This fieldwork, which brought scientists to the Amazon and to Melanesia, demonstrates the technical, diplomatic, and interpersonal challenges scientists faced as they attempted to navigate the cold chain, including what happened when elements of the frozen infrastructure they were attempting to create broke down. Following the Alpha Helix across space and across time reveals new kinds of “ships”—kinship, ownership, stewardship—that sail to the core of efforts to cope with the promise and peril of biomedical innovation predicated on access to human body parts.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226448244.003.0006
[freezer anthropology;genomics;reuse;maintenance;repatriation;ethics;cryopolitics]
In the contemporary frozen archive, blood has continued to fulfill its scientific potentialas a biomedical research object even as it provokes a reassessment of the ethical and political dimensions of knowledge making involving human subjects.Since the 1990s, scientists have thawed long frozen blood for a variety of new uses, including research on evolution and ancestry. At the same time, members of some of the indigenous communities whose blood persists in biomedicine’s freezers have become concerned that these new uses may not serve their futures; rather, they may put those futures in jeopardy. As their blood becomes more and more potentially productive of biomedical futures and capital, some have come to see the freezer as an insecure environment from which the remains of their ancestors must be rescued.

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226448244.003.0007
[research ethics;research regulation;indigenous knowledge]
Experimental systems that rely on human subjects, or parts of their bodies, can produce remarkable and unexpected insights. Those systems can also be confounded or halted by unanticipated ethical dilemmas. These dilemmas may be experienced as a disruption or even an impediment to the production of technical knowledge. However, they do not exist out side of or beyond science. They are not ancillary to it and they should not be treated as such. In any effort to redirect life in time, frictions are inevitable and there is always latent potential that may surprise or disrupt the routines of research. These moments are opportunities to make different and perhaps even better kinds of knowledge.This conclusion highlights the need to reconcile the social and moral needs of communities with those of science.