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The Transplant Imaginary: Mechanical Hearts, Animal Parts, and Moral Thinking in Highly Experimental Science

By Lesley A. Sharp, Ann Whitney Olin Professor of Anthropology

University of California Press, 2013

In The Transplant Imaginary, author Lesley Sharp explores the extraordinarily surgically successful realm of organ transplantation, which is plagued worldwide by the scarcity of donated human parts, a quandary that generates ongoing debates over the marketing of organs as patients die waiting for replacements. These widespread anxieties within and beyond medicine over organ scarcity inspire seemingly futuristic trajectories in other fields. Especially prominent, longstanding, and promising domains include xenotransplantation, or efforts to cull fleshy organs from animals for human use, and bioengineering, a field peopled with “tinkerers” intent on designing implantable mechanical devices, where the heart is of special interest.

Scarcity, suffering, and sacrifice are pervasive and, seemingly, inescapable themes that frame the transplant imaginary. Xenotransplant experts and bioengineers at work in labs in five Anglophone countries share a marked determination to eliminate scarcity and human suffering, certain that their efforts might one day altogether eliminate any need for parts of human origin. A premise that drives Sharp’s compelling ethnographic project is that high-stakes experimentation inspires moral thinking, informing scientists’ determination to redirect the surgical trajectory of transplantation and, ultimately, alter the integrity of the human form.