Patterns of Infection and Patterns of Evolution: How a Malaria Parasite Brought “Monkeys and Man” Closer Together in the 1960s

Abstract

In 1960, American parasitologist Don Eyles was unexpectedly infected with a malariaparasite isolated from a macaque. He and his supervisor, G. Robert Coatney of the National Institutes of Health, had started this series of experiments with the assumption that humans were not susceptible to “monkey malaria.” The revelation that a mosquito carrying a macaque parasite could infect a human raised a whole range of public health and biological questions. This paper follows Coatney’s team of parasitologists and their subjects: from the human to the nonhuman; from the American laboratory to the forests of Malaysia; and between the domains of medical research and natural history. In the course of this research, Coatney and his colleagues inverted Koch’s postulate, by which animal subjects are used to identify and understand human parasites. In contrast, Coatney’s experimental protocol used human subjects to identify and understand monkey parasites. In so doing, the team repeatedly followed malaria parasites across the purported boundary separating monkeys and humans, a practical experience that created a sense of biological symmetry between these separate species. Ultimately, this led Coatney and his colleagues make evolutionary inferences, concluding “that monkeys and man are more closely related than some of us wish to admit.” In following monkeys, men, and malaria across biological, geographical, and disciplinary boundaries, this paper offers a new historical narrative, demonstrating that the pursuit of public health agendas can fuel the expansion of evolutionary knowledge.

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Acknowledgments

This research was funded by the Wellcome Trust (grant 092719/Z/10/A), on the grant “One Medicine? Investigating human and animal disease.” The insights and suggestions of my colleagues on this grant, including Abigail Woods, Michael Bresalier, and Angela Cassidy, have been invaluable. Many thanks also to Julie Hipperson, Gina Rumore, and Kim Mason, who all commented on drafts along the way, and to Georgina Montgomery and Rob Kirk, who both shared information about the use of primates in research in the early twentieth century. Thanks to the participants of the History of Science Society session (Boston, 2013) from which this paper originated, in particular Susan Jones, who provided useful commentary after the session, and Pierre-Olivier Méthot (with whom I organized the session) and Glady Kostyrka, both of whom have generously commented upon this paper. I thank Leo Slater for his advice when I was originally seeking more information about NIH malariologists and for his interviews with these scientists, which I could not have read without the help of NIH archivist Barbara Faye Harkins. Don Eyles’ son, Don Eyles, Jr., kindly provided me with a copy of his mother’s memoir, photographs of his family, and his own recollections of the time his father fell ill with malaria – not to mention meeting with me in Boston and attending my talk during the HSS meeting! My thanks to two anonymous reviewers, who provided a thoughtful critique of this paper. Finally, thanks always to my husband, Bryn Mason Dentinger, ever the sounding board for my ideas and arbiter of my work.

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This essay is part of a special issue entitled ‘Ecology and Infection: Studying Host-Parasite Interactions at the Interface of Biology and Medicine.’

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Mason Dentinger, R. Patterns of Infection and Patterns of Evolution: How a Malaria Parasite Brought “Monkeys and Man” Closer Together in the 1960s. J Hist Biol 49, 359–395 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10739-015-9421-8

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Keywords

  • Parasitology
  • Malaria
  • Evolution
  • Public health
  • Primates
  • Ecology
  • Zoonosis
  • Experimental medicine
  • Lab-field border
  • National Institutes of Health