Conference: Standards and their containers: the global history of pathogen and vector standardisation

standards conference poster

Standards and their containers: the global history of pathogen and vector standardisation

12-13 April, 2019
University of Oxford, Wadham College


Organisers: Dr Claas Kirchhelle and Dr Aro Velmet

Following the discovery of the first bacterial pathogens in the late 19th century, knowledge about microbes and viruses, pathways of transmission, and possible clinical and chemotherapeutic interventions has grown exponentially. Across the globe, researchers, medical practitioners, and patients alike routinely refer to a canon of ideal-type disease definitions and organisms. What is less well known is how these ideal types were created. Far from being ‘out there’ in nature, the pathogens causing diseases like typhoid, cholera, yellow fever, or malaria had to be brought into the laboratory for isolation and culturing, their taxonomies had to be agreed on by the wider research community, a set of standardised organisms had to be archived in type collections across the world. In order to be useful in the field, new diagnostic tests moreover had to guarantee the reliable identification of discovered disease agents, and global infrastructure had to revamped to guarantee the replicability of laboratory conditions across space. Creating international disease standards was not only time and resource consuming but often resulted in prolonged struggles over disease definitions and scientific prestige.

In April of 2019, the workshop “Standards and Their Containers” will bring together researchers from across the medical humanities to explore the power struggles, technologies, collections, and organisms used to standardise disease in the modern era. Presentations are expected to examine not only the pathogens themselves, but the laboratory networks and animal containers used to culture, transport, and standardise disease. By taking as a starting point the premise that diseases are not stable identities but are constantly redefined and standardised to fit the needs of the societies affected by them, this workshop encourages participants to see how conventional histories of modernization change when seen from the perspective of microbial, rather than human infrastructure invention.

All are welcome.

This event is free to attend and no booking is required.

Standards and Their Containers


11 April - Wadham College

Delegates arrive. Optional dinner for those interested at Quod on High Street at 19:30

12 April - Wadham College


Registration and coffee




Opening remarks

Aro Velmet (Oxford &USC) & Claas Kirchhelle (Oxford)




Keynote lecture: Between local and mobile biologies: the techno-politics of indicating West African life-webs

Noémi Tousignant (UCL)




Panel 1: Neglect, Failure, Dissimilarity

Chair: Aro Velmet

Dora Vargha (Exeter): ’Standardising the dead and the live: polio vaccines and the World Health Organization’

Samantha Vanderslott (Oxford): ’Conceptualising neglect through the standardisation of a disease grouping’

Tizian Zumthurm (Bern) : ‘Trial and error: (de)-standardising the pharmaceutical treatment of leprosy at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné, 1913-65’

Comment: Nicole Nelson




Lunch at Wadham




Panel 2: Centers of Standardization

Chair: Paul Atkinson

Christos Lynteris (St Andrews): ’Cargo ships as experimental systems: plague, rats and fumigation in 1900 Europe’

Kevin Hall (Goethe-University Frankfurt): Standardization, localisation, blind spots: how routine surveillance of flu viruses shapes our experience of seasonal epidemics

Sudip Saha (New Eastern Hill): ‘Locating the vector: the political economy of malaria in Assam tea plantations (c.1898-1930)’

Comment: Noémi Tousignant






Panel 3: Global Pathogens, Global Standards

Chair: Dmitriy Myelnikov

Paul Atkinson (Liverpool) : ’The global surveillance of antimicrobial resistance’

Claas Kirchhelle (Oxford): ’Seeing like a virus: bacteriophage typing and the standardization of international typhoid surveillance (1938-1965)’

Morgan Meyer (Mines-ParisTech) : ’Drawing the line between biohacking and bioterrorism’

Comment: Dora Vargha




Drinks Reception






13 April: Oxford Martin School






Panel 4: Epistemological Politics

Chair: Judith Rainhorn

Aro Velmet (Oxford, USC): ’Black skins, white mice: race and species in the standardization of the Dakar Yellow Fever Vaccine, 1930s-1960s’

Benoit Pouget (Aix-Marseille): ‘”Understand and fight an invisible enemy”: The health service of the French Navy and its doctors against cholera (1817-1883)’

Nicole Nelson (Wisconsin-Madison): ‘When standardization means variation: the movement towards heterogenized mouse environments’

Comment: Christos Lynteris




Panel 5: Vectors, substances, pharmaceuticals

Chair: Samantha Vanderslott

Judith Rainhorn (Paris I - Sorbonne): ‘On the standardisation of lead poisoning in France’

Edwin Ogola (Charité Institute of Virology): ‘Anopheles funestus mosquitoes: modern day malaria vector in Kenya’

Dmitriy Myelnikov (Manchester): ‘Standardising phages and consolidating authority in Soviet Georgia, 1945–1960’

Comment: Claas Kirchhelle




Concluding remarks




Lunch at Turl Street Kitchen