The British Journal for the History of Science

  • The British Journal for the History of Science / Volume 46 / Issue 01 / March 2013, pp 123-147
  • Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2012 The online version of this article is published within an Open Access environment subject to the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike licence <>. The written permission of Cambridge University Press must be obtained for commercial re-use.
  • DOI: (About DOI), Published online: 12 October 2012

Research Article

Experimental physiology, Everest and oxygen: from the ghastly kitchens to the gasping lung


Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane, Cambridge, CB2 3RH, UK. Email:


Often the truth value of a scientific claim is dependent on our faith that laboratory experiments can model nature. When the nature that you are modelling is something as large as the tallest terrestrial mountain on earth, and as mysterious (at least until 1953) as the reaction of the human body to the highest point on the earth's surface, mapping between laboratory and ‘real world’ is a tricky process. The so-called ‘death zone’ of Mount Everest is a liminal space; a change in weather could make the difference between a survivable mountaintop and a site where the human respiratory system cannot maintain basic biological functions. Predicting what would happen to the first human beings to climb that high was therefore literally a matter of life or death – here inaccurate models could kill. Consequently, high-altitude respiratory physiology has prioritized not the laboratory, but the field. A holistic, environmentally situated sort of science used a range of (often non-scientific) expertise to prove the laboratory wrong time after time. In so doing, Everest was constructed paradoxically both as a unique field site which needed to be studied in vivo, and as a ‘natural laboratory’ which could produce generalizable knowledge about the human (male) body.

(Online publication October 12 2012)


  As this research is just part of a much larger project, it has accrued many debts, not least to the co-funders, the Wellcome Trust and the Isaac Newton Trust. Thanks are due to the archivists at the Wellcome Library, the Mandeville Special Collections Library at UC San Diego, and the Royal Geographical Society; to Ms Harriet Tuckey and Professor John West for information and inspiration; and to Dr Andrew Murray and Dr Mike Grocott (and the members in general) of the Caudwell Xtreme Everest Expedition. This article has been substantially improved by feedback from the audience of my Departmental Seminar at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Cambridge, from Simon Schaffer and from two reviewers.