Seminar: Fighting Fire with Fire. The Danysz Virus, Plague Prevention and early 20th century Epidemiology

Lukas Engelmann
(University of Edinburgh)

In 1890, the physician and pioneer bacteriologist Friedrich Loeffler of the German hygienic institute in Greifswald observed a strange pattern of high mortality in his white research mice. Experiments exposed a new bacterial agent, in shape and appearance similar to bacillus typhi, but seemingly harmless to most organisms except small rodents. Instead of devising pathways to the pathogen’s quick destruction, Loeffler went against the bacteriological zeitgeist and considered a practical use of the bacteria in agriculture. Inducing epizootics with targeted infections could potentially rid farming of the expensive nuisance of mice and other small rodents. Jean Danysz, a Polish bacteriologist at Institute Pasteur in Paris picked up Loeffler’s thoughts in 1892 and established a research program on the coordinated use of the bacteria in French agriculture. But although some of his experiments had shown satisfying results, the technique raised too many concerns among farmers and bacteriologists alike and didn’t find wide application.

For the Danysz Virus to reach popularity it had to be reinvented as an instrument of plague prevention. After the rat had been accepted as the pivotal vector of bubonic plague, the Danysz Virus celebrated a breakthrough as an essential, and in historical records often overlooked, cornerstone of deratisation-campaigns around the globe. My talk will address the history of the Danysz-Virus as the first bacteriological agent of animal vector control to sketch out some of the epidemiological concepts, which enabled this unconventional practice and which led eventually to its demise.

Thursday, 19th October 2017, 12.45 pm – 2.00 pm
Venue:  LG9, Keppel Street Building


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