Green Templeton’s annual lecture in the history of medicine.
Thursday 21 November, 6pm
This lecture is on the historical origins and the popularity of ‘Koch’s Postulates’.
Rather than Robert Koch, it was his colleague Friedrich Löffler who in 1884 wrote down the well-known three steps of isolation, cultivation and inoculation as conditions for establishing a microbial aetiology of an infectious disease.
These postulates are frequently invoked in textbooks of medicine and medical history. Yet, strict adherence to them is rarely to be found in medical research. Already their assumed inventor, Koch, produced numerous variations in his own methodology. Underlying his work was a sort of trivial ontology of infectious diseases which rendered an experimental study of human pathologies in animal models practical and meaningful.
There were many ways to pursue this end and Koch usually limited his discussion to practical questions related to the course that investigations had to take, while principal matters were only treated implicitly in his writings. Löffler’s achievement was to popularise Koch’s views in his postulates.
Given that, it is not surprising that references to Koch’s postulates in the 20th century usually refer to the spirit rather than the literal meaning of the postulates. Also there are countless variations of those postulates. For example, proponents of virology or molecular medicine devised variations of Koch’s postulates that serve to relate their own work to classical bacteriology. The latter is perceived as the origin of modern experimental medicine. The nature of such references is less historical than anecdotal: referring to a historical event that has never happened in a strict sense, these references produce ex traditione credentials for experimental medicine.
Christoph Gradmann is Professor in the History of Medicine at the University of Oslo Institute of Health and Society. His research focuses on the history of infectious disease in modernity (19th century to the present).
He is the author of a biography of the German physician Robert Koch (1843-1910) and many articles on related aspects of the history of bacteriology and medical research. His current work is on infectious disease from the end of the 20th century to the present, including antibiotic resistance, nosocomial infections, and emerging infections.
Venue: E P Abraham Lecture Theatre, GTC.
All welcome. No need to register – just turn up.