International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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TUESDAY, JULY 7  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-M460
Organized session / standard talks
Uncertain equilibrium: Ideas and metaphors in 20th century ecological studies of host-parasite interactions

Pierre-Olivier Méthot (Université Laval, Canada); Mark Honigsbaum (Queen Mary University of London, United Kingdom)

While our current understanding of the nature and cause of disease is clearly informed by ecological thinking, it hasn’t always been so. Yet the historical origins of 'disease ecology' remain in need of examination. This interdisciplinary session brings in perspectives from history, philosophy, and immunology on the re-examination of ideas and metaphors such as 'equilibrium states', 'immune balance', or 'latent infections', in addition to changing conceptions of virulence and resistance, underpinning the ecological study of host-parasite interactions in the twentieth century. Historian and philosopher of medicine Pierre-Olivier Méthot argues that the work of French microbiologist Charles Nicolle (1866-1936) was neglected by most historians who studied the emerging network of disease ecology around 1900, and offers to re-examine some of its key concepts to medical microbiology as a promising way to gain a better understanding of the origins of our ecological conception of disease. Looking at the work of Swiss-born medical researcher Karl Friedrich Meyer (1884-1974), who attempted to link microbial behaviour to broader bio-ecological, environmental, and social factors that impact host-pathogen interactions and the mechanisms of disease control, historian of biology Mark Honigsbaum proposes that Meyer can be depicted as a pioneer of modern ideas of disease ecology. A theoretician of immunology and historian of biology, Bartlomiej Swiatczak, finally, advances that the metaphor of immune balance, which when used in reference to parasite-host interactions, promotes ecologically-based treatment strategies that are better suited than the long-standing self/nonself discrimination to accommodate current experimental data and to address ecological concerns in the present. Rounding out the session, historian and sociologist of biomedicine Kenton Kroker, whose current work is on encephalitis lethargica and the twentieth-century trade in emerging diseases, will chair the session and reflect on the papers presented.

Charles Nicolle: A pioneer of "disease ecology" in the early 20th century?

Pierre-Olivier Méthot (Université Laval, Canada)

Born in Rouen, Charles Nicolle (1866-1936) trained in medicine and in bacteriology in Paris before becoming the first director of the Pasteur Institute in Tunis. Mostly known for his work on the transmission of typhus by the louse, which led him to be the recipient of the Nobel Prize (1928), Nicolle also coined the concept of 'inapparent infection', to account for infections with no visible symptoms, and predicted the emergence of 'new' diseases following changes in the environment that upset the ecological balance between interacting species. The relation of Nicolle’s microbiological research to what historian of science Warwick Anderson called 'disease ecology' remains unclear, however. Emerging as a 'distinct disciplinary network' during the twentieth century, mostly in post-colonial contexts, disease ecology includes key figures such as comparative pathologist Theobald Smith and immunologist Frank MacFarlane Burnet who repeatedly emphasized the need to study the variety of biological interactions between macro and microorganisms and who rejected strict bacteriological determinism to explain the cause and spread of infectious diseases. Although Nicolle’s work correlates with this description, historians have yet to consider how and where his overall contributions fit more precisely within this network. For, while Anglo-American scholars have largely neglected the work of Nicolle that has likely influenced ecologically-minded US bacteriologists such as Hans Zinsser, French-speaking academics have instead tended to view him as the 'precursor' of the concept of 'emerging disease', if not as the sole 'inventor' of medical ecology. Re-examining the contributions of Nicolle to medical microbiology, I argue, will not only help us to overcome this divide in scholarship and to develop a more balanced view of his legacy but also to gain a better understanding of the origins of our modern, ecological conception of disease.

Karl Friedrich Meyer and the concept of "latent infections"

Mark Honigsbaum (Queen Mary University of London, United Kingdom)

The Swiss-born medical researcher Karl Friedrich Meyer (1884-1974) is best known as a microbe hunter whose investigations into animal and arthropod-borne diseases in California in the interwar period did much to break down the barriers between veterinary medicine and clinical pathology. In particular, medical historians have singled out Meyer's 1931 Ludwig Hektoen Lecture in which he described the animal kingdom as a reservoir of disease and called for parasites to be studied on a strictly comparative basis as a forerunner of one medicine approaches to emerging infectious diseases. In so doing, however, historians risk overlooking Meyer's other intellectual contributions. These contributions, ordered around the concept of latent infections, increasingly sought to link microbial behavior to broader bio-ecological, environmental, and social factors that impact host-pathogen interactions and the mechanisms of disease control. In this respect Meyer like the comparative pathologist Theobald Smith and the immunologist Frank Macfarlane Burnet can be seen as a pioneer of modern ideas of disease ecology. However, while Burnet's and Smith's contributions to this scientific field have been widely acknowledged, Meyer's have been largely ignored. This paper aims to correct that lacuna while contributing to a reorientation of the historiography of bacteriological epidemiology by presenting a sketch of Meyer's intellectual development, his key professional associations, and his studies of zoonotic diseases -such as psittacosis and plague- exemplified his ideas about latent infections and the growing importance of host-parasite interactions and equilibrium states to his research. In particular, the paper argues that at a time when military metaphors dominated the investigation of infectious disease and the relationship between virulence and pathogenesis was being called into question, Meyer's concept of latent infections provided a means of incorporating more complex bio-ecological ideas into his epidemiological model and for reimagining the relationship between parasites and hosts in in less antagonistic terms.

Immunological metaphors and sustainability of microbial ecosystems

Bartlomiej Swiatczak (University of Science and Technology of China, China)

Many historical and philosophical studies emphasize the importance of metaphors in scientific inquiry. These figures of speech have been suggested to differ from descriptive statements in that they structure scientific data, direct research and help to refer to phenomena whose molecular details are not well understood. The focus of this talk is on yet another role of scientific metaphors: that of guiding our interaction with the environment. In particular, an attempt is made to show that in the 20th century immunological metaphors influenced clinical and sanitary conduct thereby affecting microbial ecosystems. Indeed, by appealing to the putative function of the immune system to eliminate all kinds of foreign agents, the metaphor of self/nonself discrimination as well as the preceding concept of own/foreign distinction validated the use of sterilizing agents in the management of human interactions with microbial communities. Despite its provisional curative effect, the widespread use of bactericidals led to expansion of antibiotic resistant species and impoverishment of non-pathogenic microflora. Thus, the metaphor of self/nonself discrimination indirectly contributed to the recent increase in the number of infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases and allergies. This should be contrasted with the metaphor of immune balance, which when used in reference to parasite/host interactions, promoted ecologically-based treatment strategies involving use of bacteriophages, probiotics and immune stimulants. We suggest that the latter metaphor is better suited than the one of self/nonself discrimination to accommodate current experimental data and to address ecological concerns of the day. Overall, the investigation of the link between immunological metaphors and the implicated approach to sanitation and treatment reveals an ethical dimension implicit in the scientific discourse. It suggests that the success of metaphor in science should not only be measured in terms of its epistemic usefulness but also in terms of its far reaching consequences for the environment and society.