Seeing Like a Virus
CDC laboratorian, Gail Wathen, examines of an agar culture Petri dish, which has been inoculated with Salmonella typhi bacteria, and typed using bacteriophages, 1963 (CDC).
“Seeing like a Virus” explores the history and legacies of a key surveillance technology for bacterial pathogens: bacteriophage-typing.
Phage-typing employs carefully curated sets of bacteria-infecting viruses (bacteriophages) to identify bacteria. The technology originated in 1920s Germany and became a gold standard for surveying important pathogens throughout the Cold War. However, biological limitations, extractive sampling, and hierarchical laboratory networks also facilitated a neglect of diseases in the Global South and a distortion of international health politics towards Northern interests.
Focusing on phage-typing: (1) I explore how laboratory-based typing technologies structured knowledge of infectious disease and reinforced global power imbalances; (2) I collaborate with microbiologists to study the biological past of typing collections; (3) I explore microbial collections' current recycling by the biotech industry and (post)colonial legacies of phenotypic surveillance in the genomic era.
This project is funded by a Wellcome Trust University Award.