In the mid-1950s, newspapers and magazines excitedly reported on scientist-explorers undertaking daring expeditions to harpoon gray whales off the North American Pacific Coast. Tales of enraged mother whales bashing boats and groups of men attempting risky technological feats painted an image of maritime scientific adventure. The scene of these adventures was the foggy southern California coast and a “lonely Mexican lagoon.”
Yet, there’s something unusual about these altogether too-familiar-sounding tales of rugged men in rugged landscapes doing rugged deeds. Led by medical doctors, these expeditions planned to record whale hearts’ electrical activity, hoping to unlock the secrets of human hearts. These “coronary explorers,” as one newspaper called them, aimed not to understand gray whale behavior and physiology, but rather to use whales for human medical research. Although these expeditions have been largely forgotten, they provide a window into intersections of medicine, whale science, and colonial masculinity in the mid-twentieth century. Instead of unlocking cardiological secrets, these expeditions – including their bad weather and uncooperative whales – played a pivotal role in public imaginaries of seafaring masculine hero-scientist figures.
Dr. Paul Dudley White led the most famous “cardiographic whale hunts.”  An influential cardiologist posthumously declared the “Father of American cardiology,” White rose to national prominence when he became President Eisenhower’s personal cardiology consultant following Eisenhower’s 1955 heart attack. White’s gray whale adventures commenced two years earlier in January 1953 off La Jolla, California. This initial (and largely unsuccessful) expedition sparked a small flurry of attention. An AP headline declared: “Weather Bad and Whales Un-cooperative So Heart Specialists Return Home.” Visibility in the foggy waters off La Jolla was poor, and the AP reported that the whales the expeditioners did see “seemed more concerned with reaching their mating grounds in southern waters than aiding the advancement of science.”
White’s second expedition in February 1956 made a larger splash in media coverage across the country, from the New York Times to a self-penned National Geographic spread. Leading an effort called “Expedition Heartbeat” to Mexico’s Laguna Ojo de Liebre (then called Scammon Lagoon), White radioed updates to the media, which followed the expedition raptly. Once again, gray whales proved elusive, evading harpooners despite White’s purportedly benevolent, scientific intentions. “Whales Wary of Baring Their Hearts To Dr. White’s Coronary Explorers,” a DC newspaper declared, adding that White “lost the first round in his effort to wiretap a whale’s heartbeat.” In National Geographic, a photo spread accompanied stories of the expedition’s (mis)adventures – including an attacking mother, a ruined boat, and whale sightings the expedition just barely missed. White admits, “[in] the end we fell short of our goal,” but concludes optimistically, hoping to return again to “record the heartbeat of wary grays.”
White was not the only medical practitioner to dabble with open-water whale cardiographs, but others received less coverage, perhaps because they lacked his celebrity factor. One of these less-covered expeditions added a tranquilizer to the approach, earning the headline: “Harpoon of Happiness Tranquilizes a Whale.” Whether splashing across the pages of syndicated columns, major magazines and newspapers, or medical journals, these expeditions shared one goal: harpooning whales to unlock the secrets of human hearts.
This begs the question: what were these coronary explorers doing out on the water, harpooning whales for human health? Why did these expeditions happen?
After all, it seems prudent to mention that gray whales, or any whales for that matter, are neither the most convenient nor informative model organisms for medical research. It would have been far easier to access terrestrial animals like pigs, cows, sheep, or mice in laboratories or farms. Not only are whales difficult to access, but, as marine mammals, their physiology is also extremely different from that of humans. They live in wildly different environmental conditions – they must surface to breathe, cope with freezing temperatures, and dive at depths with unimaginable pressure. Indeed, medical research today uses marine mammals as lessons for how to adapt to hostile, extreme environmental conditions, including outer space. Suffice it to say, whales are not particularly useful for understanding typical human physiology.
Yet, media coverage of these expeditions left the key question – why whales? – unaddressed, even unconsidered. Why would recording whale electrocardiograms be the most beneficial way of understanding human hearts? Why were physicians leading these expeditions and not zoologists, marine scientists, or veterinarians? By and large, the media accepted without question that studying the largest heart available – even though, despite some reporting, gray whales are not and were not then the largest whales around – would indeed provide helpful insights into human heart functioning and variability. The media coverage instead lingered on the sensationalistic aspects of these unusual expeditions – and the heroics of the scientist-adventurers who helmed them.
I cannot say what exactly went through the minds of the people who decided to run these expeditions. What I can say is that 1946 — when commercial hunting of gray whales was banned internationally — marked a turning point though in certain Americans’ relationships with these whales. This was not the first conservation measure, as the Makah Tribe voluntarily ceased hunting for conservation reasons in the 1920s, despite 1855 treaty rights; in the 1950s, the Makah could not hunt the same whales these expeditions pursued. The long-fading masculine glory days of Yankee whaling were officially a bygone era, but performing that romanticized past was already an established tradition. White and other coronary explorers were following in earlier footsteps.
In the 1910s, natural historian and explorer Roy Chapman Andrews – a possible inspiration for Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones, Jr., the title character of the Indiana Jones franchise – embarked on a journey to discover whether gray whales might still inhabit the Korean peninsula. Declaring gray whales extinct in California (which they were not), Andrews wanted to “rediscover” the species, as detailed in his 1916 travelog, Whale hunting with gun and camera. Half a century earlier, Charles Melville Scammon chased gray whales for profit, kicking off the bonanza years of commercial whaling in Baja California Sur’s lagoons. In his 1874 book, Scammon recounted these tales alongside detailed natural history observations. Both Scammon and Andrews were credited for advancing scientific knowledge of whales via their adventures in exotified, far-off lands – and both make cameos in White’s National Geographic feature.
Later coronary explorers such as White were part of a long legacy of white American men turning to the waters of Alta and particularly Baja California to forge futures and tell adventurous stories. In the mid-twentieth century, many famous men – specifically, men who paved careers outside biological fieldwork – pursued pseudoscientific jaunts to Baja. The oft-exotified and inaccurately imagined-to-be-uninhabited Baja coast was a playground for performing a particular kind of masculine rejection of the daily tasks of professional life. From famed novelists John Steinbeck (The Log from the Sea of Cortez, 1951) and Erle Stanley Gardner (Hunting the Desert Whale, 1960), to White, the lagoons of Baja beckoned with Teddy Roosevelt-esque opportunities to slip between respectable professional careers and rough outdoors adventures. Their predecessors provided a useful template as jack-of-all-trades professionals who could move between the halls of science and the field, and whose field experiences bestowed them with (presumed) legitimacy to speak as adventurers, rather than armchair scientists. Bad weather and uncooperative whales were catalysts, not barriers, for these fieldwork stories – signs of roughing it in the wild. Although these expeditions were not the most famous of any of these men’s work, they endowed them with a kind of rugged authority. Indeed, “Expedition Heartbeat” does not currently appear on White’s Wikipedia page, but it appeared in both contemporaneous and posthumous accounts of White as an adventurer-scientist.
This model of masculinity was also wrapped up in whaling’s colonial history. As an apparatus that extended American access to, and exploitation of, natural resources and territory at home and abroad, commercial US-based whaling was inseparable from American colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. Yankee whaling crossed historic and contemporary political borders, as the history of gray whale hunting in Mexico shows. Within and beyond the whaling industry, these broader transnational structures affected different people’s ability to move across such borders, with significant consequences. From Moby-Dick to the wreck of the whaleship Essex, Yankee whaling also has held a powerful nostalgic role in remembering transnational American histories.
Yet, this story is also more than one of men wanting to be romanticized, colonial Yankee whalers or cowboys of an imagined Wild West. These expeditions did reveal secrets of human hearts far more than they revealed anything about whale hearts – just not in the way their cardiographic explorers intended. What the expeditions failed to collect in data, they made up for in the perhaps unexpected public relations success for the figure of the scientist hero. The expeditions revealed a broader desire for a continued source of stories of rugged whale tales in which adventurer-scientists forged American futures through encounters with whales. While these stories fell out of popular discourse with the professionalization of whale science and the “save the whales” movements of the 1970s, they are nonetheless a powerful snapshot of colonial masculine adventuring, medical knowledge, and whale research in mid-twentieth century North America.
- Paul Dudley White with Samuel W. Matthews, “Hunting the Heartbeat of a Whale,” National Geographic, July 1956, 49. ↑
- “Dr. White Studies Whale’s Heart,” New York Times, February 12, 1956, T11. ↑
- On whale research in the mid-twentieth century, see D. Graham Burnett, Sounding of the Whale: Science and Cetaceans in the Twentieth Century. (University of Chicago Press, 2012). On history of medicine and animals at Nursing Clio, see Aparna Nair, “‘The Joy of My Life”: Seeing-Eye Dogs, Disabled Veterans/Civilians and WWI,” November 15, 2018; Lance C. Thurner, “Lizards and the Idea of Mexico,” April 12, 2018. On nonhumans, medicine, and coloniality, see: Rohan Deb Roy, Malarial Subjects: Empire, Medicine and Nonhumans in British India, 1820–1909 (Cambridge University Press, 2017). ↑
- I explore White’s expeditions in a forthcoming article; we’ll link here when it’s published. ↑
- The physician who led that expedition made national newspapers again two years later for claiming “nagging wives” caused heart attacks – showing interesting links between medical sexism and whale cardiographic research. ↑
- For example, in defending White’s expeditions as not “a foolish whim,” Clinical Cardiology suggests the large size of whale hearts helped visualize structures prior to microscopes. Yet White himself discussed microscopic examination of hearts and these expeditions did not dissect hearts. ↑
- Some additional hints might be found in White’s papers at Harvard’s Special Collections, which I haven’t examined. I’m more interested, though, in the public discussion of this motivation. ↑
- Joshua L. Reid, The Sea Is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs (Yale University Press, 2015), 167-177. Makah whale hunts would remain halted until gray whales were removed from the Endangered Species List in the 1990s. The Makah Tribe still aims to restore treaty rights to hunting gray whales, in a legal battle that has lasted two decades. ↑
- Another similarity shared across each era is the erasure of local peoples’ labor, as well as of women who accompanied the “explorers” (particularly their wives). ↑
- On fieldwork, masculinity, and scientific authority, see Rebecca M. Herzig, Suffering for Science: Reason and Sacrifice in Modern America (Rutgers University Press, 2005). ↑
- See, for example: Reid (2015); Bathsheba Demuth, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (W.W. Norton & Co.); Nancy Shoemaker, Living with Whales: Documents and Oral Histories of Native New England Whaling History (Massachusetts Press); Ryan Tucker Jones and Angela Wanhalla (eds) New Histories of Pacific Whaling – Revised Edition. RCC Perspectives: Transformations in Environment and Society (2019), no. 6. ↑
- On gender, exploration, and the “desert,” see Sarah Swedberg, “What Does Gender Have to Do with the Desert?,” Nursing Clio, April 11, 2019. ↑