Towards a natural history of infectious disease

For my thesis research, I came across a fascinating article by Australian physician, poet and medical historian on the subject of the study of infectious disease throughout time, but in particular the 20th century. While my area of research does not interest itself too specifically or in depth with medical history, Anderson’s approach to medical history is of import not only because he traces the development of ecological and environmental thought in cognate disciplines but also does so through a postcolonial lens. Unlike much of medical history that does take a Eurocentric approach to natural and medical history, Anderson’s orientation to the field is one that is acutely conscientious of social and historical context not simply for scientific thoughts but also geographies and culture. As such, many with only tangential interest in medical history would find his work compelling, especially due to the postcolonial undertones.

Anderson’s project in “Natural History of Infectious Disease: Ecological Vision in Twentieth-Century Biomedical Science” is one that seeks to find roots of contemporary environmental thought in, as well as examine the increasing molecularization of the medical sciences.

In the 20th century, on one hand, there was the trend in molecularization of infectious diseases, which Anderson aptly terms “microbe hunting”. Microbe hunting is driven by the belief that the key to curing and managing these illnesses is to find the organisms directly responsible for the ailment, and find a “magic bullet” or antibiotic, vaccines, what-have-you to directly combat it. It treats each aspect of the disease as distinct from the context of the disease, that is, the human body, situated within an ecosystem among other living beings. This trend is juxtaposed and contrasted with that of medical geography, and subsequently disease ecology, which sought to formulate a more comprehensive, complex and dynamic models of infectious disease. The former approach is likened to physicochemical reductionism of complex symbiogenetic living systems, while the latter is analogous to Hippocratic philosophies of holism and holistic care. The scientists he mentions were largely involved in work in colonial settler societies of Australia and United States, and thus had many racist interpretations of ecology. Anderson does not shy away from these idiosyncrasies, but uses them to caution readers about oversimplification of ideas coming from a very different timeframe than ours.

Nonetheless, many of these pioneering scientists, bacteriologists, physicians, epidemiologists and the like were interested in an ecological account of infectious disease, one that did not separate the human body as an innate distinct system from the rest of the natural world. According to these group of scientists, microbial infections had to be put in the context of overall evolution of living beings. Chief among these scientists, “Smith described health and disease as consequences of a struggle for existence between living things, predatory and parasitic. He reported on the life cycle of parasites, host-parasite conflict, symbiosis and mutualism, cell parasitism and phagocytosis, and variation and mutation among parasites.” For Anderson, this is a way to move to more contemporary ideas in ecological thought and environmental health.

I recently attended a book launch by STS scholar and anthropologist of science Prof. Natasha Myers for her book Rendering Life Molecular which deals with similar trends in molecularization, but specific with attention to protein crystallography and how practitioners use their own bodies in the process. I have been interested in the trend of molecularization of the life sciences, but I had no idea that the schism between holistic, environmental thought and “reductionism” went so far back within the history of medicine. I had this notion that the separation of “nature” and “society” was indeed something that was mostly a product of modernity, but I guess I knew the likes of Agamben and Latour would contest that.

In the next few weeks, I have many readings related to this to complete, and I hope to check back in here for more thoughts. Stay tuned.

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