Kara W. SwansonBanking on the Body: The Market in Blood, Milk, and Sperm in Modern America

Harvard University Press, 2014

by Carla Nappi on October 20, 2014

Kara W. Swanson

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How did we come to think of spaces for the storage and circulation of body parts as “banks,” and what are the consequences of that history for the way we think about human bodies as property today? Kara W. Swanson’s wonderful new book traces the history of body banks in America from the nineteenth century to today, focusing especially on milk, blood, and sperm. Banking on the Body: The Market in Blood, Milk, and Sperm in Modern America (Harvard University Press, 2014) takes readers into early twentieth-century America, when doctors first turned to human bodies and their parts as sources of material to help cure their most desperate cases. As these doctors developed an expertise in harvesting body products and sought reliable and cooperative supplies thereof, human milk and blood were first transformed into commodities. Swanson’s story introduces some of the most crucial actors in this history, including wet nurses, professional blood donors, Red Cross volunteer “Grey Ladies,” doctors, blood bank managers, mothers who ran milk banks, sperm donors, and many, many others. The story is deeply satisfying on many levels: as a window into particular human lives, as a conceptual history with material consequences, and as a set of case studies that illuminates and informs today’s legal and medical landscapes. This is a book that should be on the shelves and in the hands of anyone interested in legal history, medical history, modern notions of “property,” and the ways that the past had shaped what happens to our bodies in the present and what might happen to them in the future.

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