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Higher and Colder

Higher and Colder: A History of Extreme Physiology and Exploration

Vanessa Heggie
University of Chicago Press
2019
264 pp.
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Imagine enduring a cold shower and then exercising in the sodden clothes of a man who died of exposure. In 1966, British physiologist and mountaineer L. G. C. E. Pugh reported the results of such an experiment, having recruited volunteers to exercise in a climate chamber while wearing the outfits of three young men who perished during a hike in 1964. He determined that windy conditions can reduce the “insulation value” of nonwaterproof clothing by 85% or more. Stories such as this figure prominently in Vanessa Heggie’s short book, Higher and Colder, a thematic exploration of extreme physiologists during the 20th century that takes readers from the Himalaya to Antarctica and beyond.

One theme Heggie explores is the remarkable connectedness between places and the historical actors who carried out early studies on the limits of human survival. Take mountaineer and explorer Sir Edmund Hillary, who led expeditions in both Antarctica and the Himalaya. Hillary led the third group to ever reach the South Pole as part of the 1955–1958 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (CTAE). As part of this trek, medical officer Allan Rogers designed an experiment involving participants’ clothing in an attempt to assess how well humans adapt to cold environments. (He concluded that there was no evidence that humans could adapt to the cold.) Later, Hillary collaborated with Pugh on the 1960–1961 Himalayan Scientific and Mountaineering Expedition, which was organized to study the physiology of high-altitude acclimatization, facilitate an oxygen-less ascent of Mount Makalu, and hunt for a yeti. Although they did not succeed in the last endeavor, a number of important contributions sprang from this expedition, including the general observation that there may be a limit to human acclimatization to altitude.

Early extreme physiological studies relied on explorers and athletes, Heggie notes, because “they were willing to run 20 miles, to swim in cold water while ‘wearing’ rectal thermometers, to expose themselves to extremes of heat and cold, [and] to climb to high altitude with and without oxygen.” Indeed, the high cost of entry to embark in field-based extreme physiological studies essentially created an exclusive club of practitioners and scientist-explorers.

Here, Heggie shines a light on racialized assumptions in early physiological studies, noting, for example, that some early physiology experiments were conducted to support ideas of environmental determinism—that different groups of people are biologically adapted to the environment of their ancestors—with the pretext that Europeans were the “normal” human form. (Women, too, were notably absent from extreme physiological studies until the end of the 20th century.)

Heggie proposes expanding the definition of “bioprospecting,” which has traditionally been used to refer to the commercialization of new products based on pharmacology or genetics, to include cultural and technological practices of survival that recognize the contribution of indigenous peoples in early physiological studies. She also discusses the barriers to entry that women who sought to work in these spaces faced during the past century, reminding the reader of institutional challenges that persist in science today.

Extreme physiology remains an important aspect of study as we set our sights ever outward (to polar regions), upward (to the Moon and Mars), and downward (to the deep ocean). With Higher and Colder, Heggie reminds us that such work can offer extraordinary stories about how science is practiced while challenging the scientific community to consider adopting institutional changes that ensure everyone can participate and is recognized for their contributions.

About the author

The reviewer is at IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute, Washington, DC 20006, USA