Connective tissues: Ethical guidelines for biohistorical research

Nancy Buenger

Abstract

A wide range of academic, commercial, and private investigators are seeking access to historical human biological materials from cultural collections and historical sites for biomolecular research. Bioanalysis of historical bone, hair, bloodstained artifacts, and other trace evidence has raised profound historical, scientific, and social questions. Professional guidelines, state laws, and federal regulations vary in their applicability to these debates and custodians of cultural collections face considerable difficulties when evaluating these requests. The Chicago Historical Society (CHS) and the Institute for Science, Law, and Technology (ISLAT) at the Illinois Institute of Technology have initiated a multi-year project to develop ethical guidelines for biohistorical research. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the project is intended to generate a national dialogue between museum professionals, academic specialists, legal experts, and cultural groups. An evaluation of historical, scientific, and social concerns raised by recent studies has generated preliminary suggestions for evaluating biohistorical research proposals; ethical guidelines will be published at a later date. CHS and ISLAT are soliciting case studies as well as commentary as they develop the guidelines.

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