In the months following the outbreak of COVID-19, schools and universities in China faced the temporary closure of their campuses. In January and February, teaching was carried out in asynchronous methods under new conditions that are now being experienced all around the world. Scholars at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science responded to a Peking University Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences (IHSS) request for guest lecture videos. Working with them in these earlier months gave the MPIWG scholars unique insight about the importance of mobile digital connectivity for asynchronous teaching as the students participated in lectures on schedules suited to them, regardless of where they were — in their dormitories on campus or with their families—wherever they were in China when the crisis started. Over the next several days, the Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective will introduce some of these guest lecture materials produced by MPIWG scholars Martina SchlünderMengmeng Sun, Shih-Pei Chen, and Edna Bonhomme, which individually and collectively address how humanities research (including digital humanities) puts the pandemic into historical context. 

Lousy Research” by Martina Schlünder relates to us the history of a search for a vaccine for epidemic typhus fever, which ravaged Europe during wartime in the first half of the twentieth century. This research focuses on the material things and processes, and living things such as lice, that all factored into creating a vaccine. This example from an earlier time shows how scientific research took place while sociocultural approaches to advocate disease control stoked racist and anti-Semitic imagery and fear of the disease. This lecture should help stimulate classroom discussions such as: What role should vaccine developers play in futures in which virologists and epidemiologists anticipate the stigmatization of entire groups of people during the course of an outbreak? How are technical approaches to dealing with diseases also social or political?

– Lisa Onaga


Lousy Research: The search for a vaccine against epidemic typhus from the First World War (1914–1918) to the Holocaust (1941–1945)

Martina Schlünder

MPIWG-Berlin & TIK, University of Oslo

In this lecture, I investigate the history of typhus fever vaccine production from the perspective of the specific material lab culture centered on lice. In a material-semiotic approach materials and objects are not understood as pre-given. They rather gain meaning by their relationship to each other. In this presentation, I follow Rickettsiae on their move through an assemblage of lice, cardboard, rubber belts, straps, clamps, vials, microscopes and human bodies, a multispecies onto-technological choreography that was carefully created for the purpose of vaccine production.

Lecture summary:

During World War I body lice migrated from the trenches, the prisoner-of-war camps and the shelters for homeless people into medical laboratories and became a major topic in bacteriology and vaccine production. Lice were known as vector and transmitter – but not as causal agents – of epidemic typhus, a disease intimately connected with war, famine, itinerant army troops, and barracking. In 1916 microbes called Rickettsiae were found in the bodies of lice and identified as the agent of typhus. Researchers quickly realized that they were not able to breed these microbes with the established methods of bacteriology like culturing and isolating the germ on nutrient agar. This had severe consequences for the prospect of a future vaccine. Rickettsiae needed to be bred in living organisms and thus lice as their ‘natural’ hosts came into the center of attention. Over the next five years, lice were transformed into a technical apparatus in microbiological labs in order to control and manipulate them as containers of the germ – or from a posthumanist perspective – to persuade lice to collaborate in the overarching goal of producing a vaccine. A sophisticated material lab culture centered on lice emerged in bacteriology: doctors, lab technicians, and entomologists started to collect, to capture, and transport them to labs in order to observe and study them. They designed schemes for checking cloths and hair systematically, constructed boxes and capsules for the transport and particular lice desks in order to work on them; they observed the movements of lice, and recorded and mapped their trajectories on different surfaces. In order to trigger and control the breeding of lice for the purpose of vaccine production most researchers even nurtured them with their own blood by carrying them around in little cages strapped to their bodies. By the end of 1930s Polish labs, especially the lab of Rudolf Weigl in Lwów, had brought this material culture and its multispecies entanglement between Rickettsiae, lice, and humans, to perfection by producing the most effective epidemic Typhus vaccine worldwide. After the occupation of Poland through Nazi Germany, Weigl hired members of the Polish resistance as lice feeders in his lab. This was tolerated by the Wehrmacht since they were in need of precious vaccine.

Martina Schlünder is a research scholar at MPIWG. She is a trained medical doctor and a feminist historian of science and medicine, working on comparative epistemologies, the history of clinical research, (nonhuman) biopolitics, and the technoscientific turn in reproduction during the 20th century.

For more on the history of vaccines, students may view additional resources here:

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The Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective began in 2011 as a joint project of the Forum for the History of Science in Asia and the Society for the History of Technology Asia Network and is currently expanded in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science(Artifacts, Action, Knowledge) and Nanyang Technological University-Singapore.

Asynchronously Teaching about Humanities Research with COVID-19 :: Martina Schlünder (Germany)
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