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'Tipping the Balance': Karl Friedrich Meyer, Latent Infections, and the Birth of Modern Ideas of Disease Ecology

Honigsbaum, M. (2016). 'Tipping the Balance': Karl Friedrich Meyer, Latent Infections, and the Birth of Modern Ideas of Disease Ecology. Journal of the History of Biology, 49(2), pp. 261-309. doi: 10.1007/s10739-015-9430-7


The Swiss-born medical researcher Karl Friedrich Meyer (1884–1974) is best known as a ‘microbe hunter’ who pioneered investigations into diseases at the intersection of animal and human health in California in the 1920s and 1930s. In particular, historians have singled out Meyer’s 1931 Ludwig Hektoen Lecture in which he described the animal kingdom as a ‘reservoir of disease’ as a forerunner of ‘one medicine’ approaches to emerging zoonoses. In so doing, however, historians risk overlooking Meyer’s other intellectual contributions. Developed in a series of papers from the mid-1930s onwards, these were ordered around the concept of latent infections and sought to link microbial behavior to broader bio-ecological, environmental, and social factors that impact hostpathogen interactions. In this respect Meyer—like the comparative pathologist Theobald Smith and the immunologist Frank Macfarlane Burnet—can be seen as a pioneer of modern ideas of disease ecology. However, while Burnet’s and Smith’s contributions to this scientific field have been widely acknowledged, Meyer’s have been largely ignored. Drawing on Meyer’s published writings and private correspondence, this paper aims to correct that lacuna while contributing to a reorientation of the historiography of bacteriological epidemiology. In particular I trace Meyer’s intellectual exchanges with Smith, Burnet and the animal ecologist Charles Elton, over brucellosis, psittacosis and plague—exchanges that not only showed how environmental and ecological conditions could ‘tip the balance’ in favor of parasites but which transformed Meyer thinking about resistance to infection and disease.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
Publisher Keywords: Bacteriology, Parasitology, Disease ecology, Latent infections, Psittacosis, Plague
Subjects: D History General and Old World > D History (General)
Q Science > QR Microbiology
R Medicine > R Medicine (General)
R Medicine > RA Public aspects of medicine
Departments: School of Communication & Creativity > Journalism
SWORD Depositor:
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