Medical Bacteriology and Medical Genetics, 1880-1940: A Call for Synthesis

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Between 1880 and 1920 the medical quest to unearth the causes of disease saw two pathbreaking discoveries. One was the bacteriological revolution - the identification of specific germs as causal agents of specific diseases (anthrax, tuberculosis, diphtheria, cholera and so on), and the simultaneous effort to develop disinfection techniques and immunisation measures to combat these diseases. The other was the rediscovery of Mendel's laws of heredity and the resulting emergence of medical genetics, where an entire set of medical maladies (deafness, blindness, bodily deformities, haemophilia, Huntington's chorea, feeble-mindedness and many mental diseases) were identified - rightly or wrongly - as genetically determined. The 'germ theory of disease' and the 'gene theory of disease' shared striking, all-too-often overlooked similarities. Both theories built on shared epistemological assumptions that influenced their explanatory mechanisms and their overall conceptual frameworks; both mobilised similar visual and linguistic vocabulary; both appropriated - and enforced - prevailing cultural and gender norms; and both enshrined broadly parallel hygienic practices. Reflecting similar social concerns, medical bacteriology and medical genetics acquired kindred scientific and societal configurations, which this paper highlights and scrutinises.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)325-354
Number of pages30
JournalMedical History
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2020


  • Health Care Sciences & Services
  • History & Philosophy Of Science
  • Life Sciences & Biomedicine
  • Arts & Humanities
  • Science & Technology


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