Medical historians, medical anthropologists, and other scholars concerned with a plethora of topics have written works centered around specific diseases; what comprises their arguments, evidence, and conclusions, however, varies greatly and begs the question, what exactly is the history of a disease, and how have scholars employed disease as a schema through which they analyze other topics? This essay will attempt to provide specific examples of historians (and anthropologists and literary scholars) using illness as a framework, and it will elucidate the benefits, drawbacks, and consequences of such work.
Few medical historians would argue with the statement that a disease is a constructed entity. The biology of an illness constitutes only a part of its meaning to the society from which it emerged. Oftentimes, there are non-biological factors — “beliefs, economic relationships, societal institutions,” to name a few — that also make up the concept that is a particular disease. Syphilis is a good case in point. The biology of the disease is fairly standard; it is a bacterial infection that, if left untreated, can become quite serious. Because of the way that it is transmitted, however, syphilis has garnered a scandalous reputation and has been associated with sin since its appearance in Europe in the late 1400s. The way the disease was handled institutionally (syphilitics were often banned from hospitals or placed in homes amongst one another) and the way that sufferers experienced it (often shunned from society, and when treated at all, given needlessly harsh “remedies”), shows that it was, at least in the eyes of the religious societies it ravaged, much more than what its biological attributes would suggest.
The Collectors of Lost Souls, Warwick Anderson
Warwick Anderson uses the events surrounding the discovery of and subsequent medico-scientific investigation into kuru to highlight not only the complex frameworks of giving and receiving that were characteristic of mid-20th century science, but those coloring the interactions between the Fore and the medical scientists and anthropologists who descended upon them starting in the 1950s. Scientists and the Fore alike exchanged parts of bodies, expecting something in return, and establishing an identity and place in the social hierarchy of their colleagues and conquerors through these transactions. The diseased Fore body thus became commoditized in the scientific marketplace, a tool used by scientists like D. Carleton Gajdusek to establish themselves as “big men” in science. As the scientific dynamics changed in the 1980s into the “biotechnology industry” characteristic of today’s exchange of scientific information and specimens, where contracts delineate interchanges between scientists, the Fore and some older members of the scientific community like Gajdusek found themselves struggling to establish or reinforce their place in the global socio-scientific structure.
The author’s approach certainly shares Bruno Latour’s emphasis on the history of scientific objects, or non-human entities, as actors in social exchanges, and the importance of scientific networks in the creation and proliferation of certain methods and the kinds of knowledge produced. I think Collectors of Lost Souls also provids a nice example of Thomas Kuhn’s “paradigm shift” in the transition from the slow virus hypotheses to the acceptance of the prion theory. Scientists ascribing to the idea that kuru was a slow virus were quite reluctant to acknowledge Stanley Prusiner’s hypothesis of a protein as the disease-causing agent as a viable alternative. They held fast to their beliefs about how antigens operated; there could be no protein with the capability of self-replication, a requirement for infectious agents. It was not until Prusiner isolated the protein in question, described how the protein replicated (through turning host protein rogue), and proved through enzymatic testing that it was the cause that the scientific community, often reluctantly, admitted the hypothesis as a possibility. This resistance to anomaly elucidation via an alternative theory fits quite well into Kuhn’s structure for “scientific revolutions.” A conversation could be had, however, concerning the lack of mutual exclusivity in regards to the old paradigm and the new; most infectious agents do operate under the more traditional mechanism, and prions are a special case found only in a few diseases.
I came away from the book with a profound feeling of discontent with the scientific process, specifically the way that it tends to foster a tendency to be remarkably skeptical of novel matters of fact that disrupt the implications older matters of fact purportedly suggested. Biologists discovered the incredibly important mechanism of RNA translation from DNA, and the subsequent transcription from RNA of proteins, the “doers” of minute biological processes — this mechanism explained many aspects of cellular biology and genetics that had previously proven quite problematic. These discoveries, however, did not necessitate the assumption that DNA to RNA to protein was the exclusive pathway all organisms took to gene expression (and by extension infection in the case of viruses). Anderson described the scientific community’s reaction to Stanley Prusiner’s suggestion of infectious proteins as “farfetched, if not heretical.” Why do scientists take a matter of fact and extrapolate upon so that it colors further research in a way that the matter of fact itself is silent about? Why can scientists not allow for ambiguity, or the potentiality of their “discoveries” being incomplete, or at the very least not all encompassing?
 Warwick Anderson, The Collectors of Lost Souls, 196.