Achieving disbelief: thought styles, microbial variation, and American and British epidemiology, 1900–1940

The role of bacterial variation in the waxing and waning of epidemics was a subject of lively debate in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century bacteriology and epidemiology. The notion that changes in bacterial virulence were responsible for the rise and fall of epidemic diseases was an often-voiced, but little investigated hypothesis made by late nineteenth-century epidemiologists. It was one of the first hypotheses to be tested by scientists who attempted to study epidemiological questions using laboratory methods. This paper examines how two groups of experimental epidemiologists, the British group led by W. W. C. Topley and Major Greenwood, and an American group directed by Leslie T. Webster at the Rockefeller Institute, studied the role of variations in bacterial virulence in the course of laboratory epidemics of mouse typhoid. Relying on Ludwik Fleck’s concept of thought styles and thought collectives, the paper analyzes the fundamental conceptual differences between these two groups of researchers and analyzes the kinds of innovations they introduced as they attempted to integrate bacteriological and epidemiological approaches. The paper shows that the stylistic differences between the two groups can be understood better in the context of the institutional histories and disciplinary relations of epidemiology and bacteriology in the two countries
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DOI 10.1016/j.shpsc.2004.06.001
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Melinda B. Fagan (2009). Fleck and the Social Constitution of Scientific Objectivity. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C 40 (4):272-285.

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