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Clinical Breeding

Cattle Reproduction and Veterinary Expertise in Sweden, 1922–1975


Dairy farming was the core of the Swedish agrarian economy during the first half of the twentieth century. Its political, economic, and social history is, accordingly, well accounted for. We know less, however, about the scientific history of Swedish dairy farming. Its medical history—pertaining to the role of veterinarians and veterinary science in its development— in particular remains unwritten. This constrains our understanding of the transformation and rationalization of Swedish agriculture that was an important part of shaping contemporary Sweden. “Clinical Breeding” begins to address this gap by investigating veterinary reproductive science in the context of dairy farming and dairy cattle breeding.

More directly put, “Clinical Breeding” examines how cattle reproduction became a veterinary expert field in Sweden; the impact this had on dairy farming; and the extent to which knowledge produced in an agricultural context was used to understand and intervene in human reproduction. At the core, it is an investigation into how human-bovine relations, veterinary expertise, and reproductive technologies (in the animal and in the human) were co-produced during the middle of the twentieth century. It emphasizes the importance of considering cattle active parts of this process: though animal freedom of action was circumscribed in an agricultural setting, bovine behavior did contribute to shaping veterinary professional claims and social standing, reproductive technologies in the human and animal, even the agrarian economy and society itself: all this was to an extent co(w)-produced.

Human-bovine interaction in the field: veterinarian Sten Nordlund inseminates a grazing cow, 1948. From the collections of the Swedish Veterinary Museum

Through creating new historical knowledge of the veterinary study of sexual physiology and pathology in cattle and its impact on agriculture and medical research, “Clinical Breeding” will advance both Swedish agrarian history and Swedish history of medicine, by demonstrating the significance of veterinary expertise and veterinary-animal relations both to the development of Swedish dairy farming and reproductive medicine. Its focus on the veterinary profession and veterinary practices in relation to breeding, and in particular its emphasis on the technological mediation and the bidirectional agency of veterinary-animal relationships, also adds new perspectives to international research on the history of farming and of reproductive science and technologies. The centering of the cows and bulls themselves furthermore implies a particular contribution to the history of science, technology and medicine and to environmental history, responding to recent calls for the need to historicize the technology-animal-human nexus while not losing sight of the animals.

The project also connects to contemporary problems and debates, for example to present-day discussions about One Health, a field of work that sees many contemporary health concerns as transcending species boundaries and thus advocates interdisciplinary and integrative approaches to the study of medicine. “Clinical Breeding” might provide contextual input about how such cross-species dynamics have operated in the past. It will also help contextualize the ongoing troubles of Swedish dairy farming. Though the study does not bear directly on the present-day structural crisis, it will help us understand more of the driving forces and nuances of the process by which high-yielding animal agriculture came about, providing new insights into the intellectual, practical, and institutional heritage of the present.