Spotlight 13/05/19 | Antimicrobials before antibiotics: war, peace, and disinfectants

This week saw the publication of an article I have been eagerly awaiting – Hannah Landecker’s latest paper on AMR, in our ‘Anti-biosis’ collection with Palgrave. After Hannah’s landmark paper on the ‘Antibiotic Resistance and the Biology of History’ in which she delves into detailed accounts of AMR from different scientific disciplines and up-ends our assumptions about human-microbe relations in a compelling, thorough and highly-citable manner, I couldn’t wait to read ‘Antimicrobials before antibiotics: war, peace, and disinfectants.’ And the paper didn’t disappoint.

In it, Professor Landecker applies her substantial skills and expertise in exploring together both biology and history to see antibiotic resistance as emergent in a larger and longer frame of chemotherapy, including arsenicals, sulphonamides and disinfectants that were in use long before penicillin. She demonstrates how it is important to understand the simultaneity of multiple selective pressures in settings of sudden prodigious disease expansion that allow for conditions of genetic change and environmental selection to successfully integrate drug resistance into cellular biochemistry. In this paper she explores what the conjunctures of the twentieth century were that prepared the social, cultural, genetic and biochemical ground into which antibiotics came? She takes two case studies – of wartime troop movements in 1940s and intensification of poultry in 1950s in the US, to illustrate moments in which multiple selective agents co-occur with extreme social and physical dislocation of people and animals, creating moments of intensified bacterial flourishing and killing, ‘the moments of strong selection for rare genetic events that also foster their expansion in time and geographical space.’

For sure, this is another excellent case in overturning certainties that resistance has often flourished in as ‘blind spots generated by human categories of knowledge and action.’ Read this, and you’ll get a new perspective not only on AMR but on how we can study it across disciplinary boundaries.