Enslaved viruses: bacteriophages, infectious disease and international health (1920–2006)


  • Dr Claas Kirchhelle

    University College Dublin, Ireland

Project summary

Bacteriophage-typing uses carefully curated sets of bacteria-infecting viruses (bacteriophages) to identify bacteria. Phage-typing originated in Germany in the 1920s and became the gold standard for surveying pathogens. However, surveillance of diseases that were prevalent in low-income countries were neglected. 

I will reconstruct the history of key surveillance technology for bacterial pathogens. I will focus on phage-typing to explore how laboratory-based typing technologies structured knowledge of infectious disease and reinforced global power imbalances. I will collaborate with geneticists to study the biological past of typing collections. I will also explore the way microbial collections are recycled by the biotech industry. 

My analysis of the technologies, infrastructure and biases underpinning infectious disease control will contribute to existing histories of biomedicine and enable me to engage policy makers and the wider public with the importance of reforming and widening the coverage of the global surveillance of pathogens.