Seminar 7: ‘Antibiotics as infrastructure: rehearsing a counterfactual of convalescence’

‘Antibiotics as infrastructure: rehearsing a counterfactual of convalescence’

The seventh HSMT seminar of Michaelmas Term will take place at 16.00 on Monday 21st November (Week 7) in the Lecture Theatre of the History Faculty on George Street, and will be delivered by Clare Chandler.

Chandler’s interests lie in the application of anthropological methods and critiques to health care and public health policies and programmes. She is interested in the implementation of technologies as ‘tools’ in global public health, for example by studying the social lives of RDTs as they meet, shift and expose patient, health care provider, health system and donor agendas. She is interested in the development of methods to design interventions which aim to improve health care and methods to understand and interpret how such interventions are enacted, absorbed, resisted and appropriated in the everyday lives of implementers and recipients. Her primary sites of research are among health care providers and care seekers (in public, private and community settings) in Tanzania and Uganda. Chandler currently holds a Seed Award from the Wellcome Trust to research how anthropological theory can be productive in conceptualising antimicrobial resistance and efforts to address this issue.

Concerns over antibiotic resistance reemphasise the centrality of antibiotics for maintaining the health of current and future populations. Since their mass production, antibiotics have been considered essential to human health care. Current apocalyptic discourses of the loss of antibiotic efficacy due to mounting resistance draw attention to the impact for future individuals who may face fatal consequences of infections now considered minor thanks to antibiotics. In this seminar, Chandler will argue that current responses to resistance allow us to see how the significance of antibiotics goes beyond health. She will explore how these substances can be considered as infrastructure socially, politically and economically, and will trace a hypothetical example of convalescence to illuminate the spaces, connections and frameworks that antibiotics currently hold together. From this perspective, more nuanced and mundane futures for living without antibiotics may become apparent.

One of the most pertinent and interesting titles the Wellcome Unit Library holds concerning this topic is The antibiotic era : reform, resistance, and the pursuit of rational therapeutics by Scott H. Podolsky (RM267 POD 2015). This recent work contains a history of antibiotics, focusing particularly on efforts to change how they are developed and prescribed, and examining the irrational usage and overprescription that has contributed to antibiotic resistance in infectious bacterial pathogens. The Wellcome Trust in London has a seminar transcript which the library also holds, discussing changes in attitudes towards antibiotics: Post penicillin antibiotics : from acceptance to resistance?, edited by E. M. Tansey and L. A. Reynolds (R131.A2 POS 2000). It reviews the problem of antibiotic resistance, and the mechanisms that transfer this resistance.










Robert Bud’s Penicillin : triumph and tragedy (RM666.P35 BUD 2007) also looks at this problem, moving from post-war optimism about infectious diseases and their eradication to the emergence of ‘superbugs’ following antibiotic abuse. Looking at one specific disease, Magic bullets to conquer malaria : from quinine to qinghaosu by Irwin W. Sherman (RC159.A5 SHE 2011) contains one chapter of particular relevance: ‘Reversal of Fortune’, which explains resistance in more detail (though its language is quite scientific in nature).










If you are unfamiliar with history of medicine from an anthropological point of view, we have titles that you may find a useful introduction. A reader in medical anthropology : theoretical trajectories, emergent realities, edited by Byron J. Good (et al.) (GN296 REA 2010) is a very broad work containing a collection of essays that represent key themes in the field of medical anthropology, examining how societies grapple with questions about the meaning of illness, suffering and death. Marcia C. Inhorn and Peter J. Brown’s The anthropology of infectious disease : international health perspectives (RA643 ANT 1997) offers a more focused anthropological perspective on the sources, consequences and treatment of infectious diseases.











Please come and ask library staff if you would like any help with locating resources, or conducting further research. We also welcome further suggestions for reading not included in this post!

Header image:  L0059573 Credit: Science Museum, London, Wellcome Images
British Standard penicillin was defined as one milligram of penicillin containing 1,600 International Units. An International Unit is defined as the potency or activity of a drug. The standard was set by the National Institute for Medical Research. International Standards were set in 1944 and in 1952. Standardisation of drugs such as penicillin is important to ensure the quantity and quality produced and given to patients is consistent all over the world.

Maker: National Institute for Medical Research
Place made: London, Greater London, England, United Kingdom, 1946
Collection: Wellcome Images; Library reference no.: Science Museum 1984-1086

Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0