I am a historian of 'bugs and drugs'. Based at University College Dublin, I research the history of microbial environments, infectious disease, and the development, marketing, and regulation of antibiotics and vaccines.
Since completing my DPhil at the University of Oxford in 2015, I have authored three books (see below) on the history of antibiotics in food production (Pyrrhic Progress, 2020), animal welfare, science, and activism (Bearing Witness, 2021), and typhoid control (Typhoid, 2022).
Policy & Public Engagement is an important part of my work. My research has informed multiple national and international policy reviews on antimicrobial resistance (AMR), laboratory based public health surveillance, and adverse effect compensation. I have also co-curated two multi award-winning exhibitions on the history of penicillin (Back from the Dead) and typhoid (Typhoidland). I have also advised on radio and theatre plays includiing (Dangerous Visions: Culture, BBC Radio 4), published in international print media, featured in major TV documentaries (Coronavirus Explained, Netflix), and given interviews for multiple national and international broadcasters.
I hold honorary fellowships at the Oxford Vaccine Group, Oxford Martin School, and am an elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
I am always on the look out for new topics, collaborations, and interested students.
Pyrrhic Progress - Antibiotics in Anglo-American Food Production (2020)
Pyrrhic Progress (Rutgers University Press, 2021, OPEN ACCESS) aalyses over half a century of antibiotic use, regulation, and resistance in US and British food production. Mass-introduced after 1945, antibiotics helped revolutionize post-war agriculture. However, the resulting growth of antibiotic infrastructures came at a price. Critics blamed antibiotics for leaving dangerous residues in food, enabling bad animal welfare, and selecting for antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in bacteria, which could no longer be treated with antibiotics. Pyrrhic Progress is the first comprehesnive reconstruction of the complicated negotiations that accompanied this process of risk prioritization between consumers, farmers, and regulators on both sides of the Atlantic. The book's analysis of the complexities of historic antibiotic stewardship efforts provides important insights for current debates on the global burden of AMR.
Winner of the 2021 Joan Thirsk Memorial Prize from the British Agricultural History Society
2020 Choice Outstanding Academic Title
Winner of the 2020 Turriano Prize from ICOHTEC
Short-listed and highly commended for the Antibiotic Guardian Award from Public Health England
Long-listed for the Michel Déon Prize from the Royal Irish Academy
"This is a great book! Essential reading for anyone concerned about the rise in antibiotics and resistance: Kirchhelle’s carefully researched text reveals the back-stories of antibiotics and farming.”
--Clare Chandler, Professor in Medical Anthropology, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
"Kirchhelle reveals both the local contexts and the global consequences of the historical relationship between antibiotics and food production. Beautifully written and exhaustively researched, this is a crucial work for understanding how we evaluate and react to 'risks' more broadly."
--Scott Podolsky, Harvard Medical School, author of The Antibiotic Era: Reform, Resistance, and the Pursuit of a Rational Therapeutics.
"Pyrrhic Progress is an excellent work of scholarship that makes important, path-breaking contributions to the history of agriculture, pharmaceuticals, politics, and policymaking in the United States and Britain in the post-World War II era. The connection between guarding against and preparing for antimicrobial resistance and climate change is fantastic, and no other work has examined these important issues as exhaustively."
--Kendra Smith-Howard, author of Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History since 1900
"Antibiotics fueled a great leap forward in food production in the twentieth century, but the price of that progress in terms of potential drug resistant infections was known from the start. This timely historical analysis shows us why previous warnings went unheeded and, in the current climate of concern over a post-antibiotic future, how a history of public discourse can provide salient lessons for one this century’s most pressing issues."
--Steve Hinchliffe, University of Exeter, author of Pathological Lives
"A thorough, critical review of the use of antimicrobials in the US and British agricultural industries since the turn of the 20th century, examining the effects on production volume and quality from the perspective of three spheres of interest: agricultural. regulatory, and public....Highly recommended."
"Provides a much-needed and painstakingly researched history of the nonhuman use of antibiotics in live- stock production and the professional turf wars and policy debates that have followed their use in farming since the 1940s....Pyrrhic Progress adds to a growing literature on the chemical revolution that has trans- formed modern agriculture and the environment more broadly. It adds to a vibrant literature on animal studies which is bringing down conceptual walls that falsely divide the history of humans from that of other animals."
"This is an impressive, well-researched, and crucial contribution to the histories of science, technology, medicine, agriculture and policymaking. In the context of our current moment, it helps illuminate the importance and cultural specificity of risk communication work in the wake of both accelerated and slow building health crises."
--The English Historical Review
"Provides crucial insight into the historical complexity of risk regimes and their consequences with regard to antibiotic use in livestock farming."
--Bulletin of the History of Medicine
"With Pyrrhic Progress, Kirchhelle is delivering on its promise to provide the first detailed, and often thrilling, historiographical analysis of the use of antibiotics in animal health. If we may be surprised at the choice of leaving aside international organizations - the three 'sisters' that are the WHO (World Health Organization), the FAO and the OIE (Word organization for animal health) having played an important role - this absence ultimately opens up new horizons for social scientists interested in veterinary antibiotics and AMR. For them, as for those involved in the field more generally, this book promises to become an essential reference."
“The meticulous work done by Kirchhelle is certainly commendable: the book stimulates the reader imagination for developing further stories and historical investigations of farmed antibiotics that would be more-than-Western, more-than-elitist and more-than-human.”
--Camille Bellet, Agricultural History Review
“Detailed, ambitious, and enormously capable of explaining the economic, political, industrial, and agricultural cultures relevant to the use of antibiotics in the production of animals for human consumption. Kirchhelle's book is very useful [and] a very interesting contribution on the trajectory of consumer society.”
--María Jesús Santesmases, Dynamis
"Kirchhelle’s study achieves a considerable and important feat, adding an innovative comprehensive framework, which integrates the production and perception of risks across human and animal medicine as well as across two key countries, to the historiography of antibiotics, technological consequences, and risks."
--Lucas M. Mueller, Technology and Culture
Bearing Witness - Ruth Harrison and British Animal Welfare (2021)
Bearing Witness (Palgrave, 2021, OPEN ACCESS) is the biography of one of Britain’s foremost animal welfare campaigners and of the world of activism, science, and politics she inhabited. In 1964, Ruth Harrison’s bestseller Animal Machines triggered a gear change in modern animal protection by popularising the term ‘factory farming’ alongside a new way of thinking about animal welfare. Bearing Witness explores Harrison’s avant-garde upbringing, Quakerism, and how animal welfare debates were linked to concerns about the wider ethical and environmental trajectories of post-war Britain. Breaking the myth of Harrison as a one-hit wonder, Kirchhelle reconstructs Harrison’s 46 years of campaigning and the rapid transformation of welfare politics and science during this time. This is the first book to cast light on the interlinked and frequently uneasy histories of post-war British animal welfare activism, science, and legislation. Its unique scope allows it to go beyond limited existing accounts of modern British animal welfare and will be of interest to those interested in animal welfare, environmentalism, and the behavioural sciences.
“Bearing Witness is a landmark work in our understanding not only of Ruth Harrison, but a century of debate about animal welfare and animal welfare science. … the narrative is engaging and makes for a genre-wise, joyful read. I would recommend this book to all those who work on animal welfare, human-animal studies, or animal philosophy. It is a rare and comprehensive work, giving us both new and better insights into the historical, political, and conceptual background of animal welfare.” -
- Jes Lynning Harfeld, Animal Welfare, Vol. 31 (2), May, 2022.
“This book is a must-read for any animal welfare scientist; in my opinion even more so than Animal Machines … . Publisher Palgrave MacMillan provides the book in Open Access so that it can be read by everyone. It is thus a recommended addition to students’ reading list. Bearing Witness is compelling, well-written and unbiased in its biography. … Kirchhelle describes the person behind the facts, with her passion for justice, the mistakes that she made, and her tactics and power to persuade.”
-- Irene Camerlink, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Vol. 250, May, 2022.
“For millions of farm animals, the world started to change for the better after Ruth Harrison wrote "Animal Machines" and laboured for many years on UK and International committees. Ruth always believed that there is only one biology and that differences between humans and other species are much smaller than many people thought. Claas Kirchhelle explains beautifully how Ruth came to have such dramatic impact in Bearing Witness.”
-- Donald M. Broom, Professor Emeritus of Animal Welfare, University of Cambridge, UK.
“A fascinating biography of a woman who changed the way the world treats farm animals, this book fills an important gap in the history of animal welfare.”
-- Marian Stamp Dawkins, CBE FRS, Professor of Ethology, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, UK.
“By following Ruth Harrison’s career, Kirchhelle skilfully amalgamates biography with an analysis of British social, intellectual, and political life in the postwar years, charting the growing importance of animal welfare as a matter of concern. This book is a welcome and important contribution in an area that is ripe for sustained historical investigation.”
-- Dmitriy Myelnikov, Historian of Science and Animal Welfare, University of Manchester, UK.
Typhoid - The Past, Present and Future of an Ancient Disease (2022)
Typhoid (Scala, 2022) explores the past, present, and future of typhoid control. A killer of paupers, princes and presidents, typhoid was an invisible threat in Victorian times and remains dangerous in many areas today. The book uses the stories of both literary characters and real-life figures to trace typhoid’s transformation from a mysterious scourge into a controllable microbial threat. Drawing on the award-winning Typhoidland project, the book dispels the myth of typhoid as an eradicated disease and shows how cutting-edge vaccines and collective international action offer new hope amidst surging drug resistance – a subject that has gained new relevance in a post-COVID world.
Long-listed 2023 British Society for the History of Science Hughes Prize.
"Claas Kirchhelle brings the story of typhoid to life in this compelling narrative taking us from the early medical references through the dawn of microbiology, the first use of immuno-diagnostics to the amazing power of modern vaccines to control this ancient killer. It is a book that meticulously observes the story and the science behind the discoveries that underpin modern understanding of infectious disease, on which our very lives depend."
-- Prof Sir Andrew Pollard, FMedSci, Director, Oxford Vaccine Group
"Typhoid is one of the classic diseases of humankind that has been with us, perhaps since humans moved out of Africa. It still persists in many places, particularly where public infrastructure is weak and impoverished. The disease has killed many significant people in history, and has imprinted on our way of thinking. This book provides a unique and eloquent discription of the disease and its continuing impact. Very relevant in the modern interconnected world."
-- Prof Gordon Dougan, FRS, FMEDSCi, Department of Medicine, University of Cambridge, Wellcome Sanger Institute.
"This lively illustrated account gives typhoid the prominence it deserves and links the past with the present."
-- Dr Margaret Pelling, Centre for the History of Science, Medicine, And Technology, University of Oxford.
"Kirchhelle’s book leaves us contemplating the future of infection prevention and control, not just the future of typhoid."
-- Saima Haq, The Lancet Infectious Diseases (21.12.2022)