Meet our PhD Students – David Saunders


David Saunders starts a PhD in the Centre for the History of the Emotions this week. His research is funded by the Wellcome Trust and intersects with our Living with Feeling grant.



“Human experimentation” conjures up particular images in the popular imagination: the horrific abuses of totalitarian regimes, the top-secret projects of government laboratories, the landmark legal battles to punish medical abuses and protect human rights. However, in these grand narratives, it is all too easy to overlook the intimate and emotionally-charged interactions that lie at the very heart of medical research: the relationships between medical and scientific experts and the patients, volunteers, and test subjects from whom knowledge is created.

My research, which focuses on the underdeveloped history of human experimentation in twentieth-century Britain, seeks to place the relationships between researchers and experimental subjects at the forefront of discussions about the changing role of medical science in modern society. I first explored these themes in my undergraduate studies at King’s College London and Queen Mary University of London. My final year dissertation, Bore Holes and Dream Machines, investigated programmes of counter-cultural self-experimentation during the 1950s and 1960s. Moving beyond the well-worn clichés of hedonism and mysticism that dominate perceptions of the Sixties, this project instead explored how bohemian artists and writers forged unusual relationships with neuroscientists and cyberneticists as they pursued experimental new methods of consciousness expansion. These ranged from using strobe lighting to produce visionary experiences to undertaking DIY psychosurgeries to attain a lasting high. You can read more about it on the Society for the Social History of Medicine website.

In my recently completed MSc at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM) at the University of Manchester, I continued to explore overlooked episodes in the British history of human experimentation. My research, supported by a Wellcome Trust Master’s Award, focused on the Sorby Research Institute in Sheffield, an abandoned suburban house that became the site of unprecedented experiments on human volunteers during the Second World War. The majority of these volunteers were pacifists and conscientious objectors, seeking a humanitarian alternative to military service, and thus offering their bodies for dangerous and unpleasant research exploring everything from parasitic infection to surgical shock. In my MSc dissertation, Voluntary Bodies: Constructing Experimental Subjects at the Sorby Research Institute, I investigated how the unusual domestic environment of the Institute, an intimate and transgressive space in which both researchers and volunteers lived and worked closely together, transformed not merely the production of medical knowledge, but the volunteers’ own notions of selfhood, identity, and their place in the world.

I will continue to explore the social and emotional dimensions of human research in my PhD project, which forms part of the Centre for the History of the Emotions’ Wellcome Trust-funded ‘Living with Feeling’ collaborative project. My doctoral thesis, provisionally titled ‘Restless Tides of Electrical Being”: Epilepsy Research, Neuroscience, and Subjectivity in Post-War Britain’, will explore how post-war neuroscientific research on patients with epilepsy challenged traditional conceptions of emotional health, consciousness, and selfhood. In particular, I will focus on the influence of the patients and volunteers themselves; not merely passive objects of study, these individuals actively contributed to the research and thus profoundly shaped developing neuroscientific models of the brain. Not only contributing to the history of British epilepsy research, this project also seeks to inform current debates about the growing role of the neurosciences in public policy. With governments increasingly turning to neuro-practitioners to maximise the emotional, psychological, and neurological health of their citizens, investigating epilepsy research reveals one outlet by which modern, rational visions of the brain gained political and scientific currency.