Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 49, Issue 2, pp 261–309 | Cite as

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

Open Access


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.


Bacteriology Parasitology Disease ecology Latent infections  Psittacosis Plague 


  1. Alizon, S., Hurford, A., Mideo, N., Van Baalen, M. 2009. “Virulence Evolution and the Trade-off Hypothesis: History, Current State of Affairs and the Future.” Journal of Evolutionary Biology 22(2): 245–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Anderson, W. 2004. “Natural Histories of Infectious Disease: Ecological Vision in Twentieth-Century Biomedical Science.” Osiris 2(19): 39–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Anderson, W. 2015. “Postcolonial Ecologies of Parasite and Host: Making Parasitism Cosmopolitan.” Journal of the History of Biology. doi: 10.1007/s10739-015-9407-6.
  4. Anonymous. 1965. “The George Williams Hooper Foundation for Medical Research, University of California Medical Center, 1960–1965.” Unpublished MSS, UCSF Library, Archives and Special Collections, George Williams Hooper Administrative Records 1882–1958, AR 91-30.Google Scholar
  5. Audy, R. J. 1965. “The G. W. Hooper Foundation.” The Hooper Newsletter, Winter. AR 91-30. UCSF Library, Archives and Special Collections, George Williams Hooper Administrative Records 1882–1958, AR 91-30.Google Scholar
  6. Burnet, F. M. 1935. “Psittacosis Amongst Wild Australian Parrots.” The Journal of Hygiene 35(3): 412–420.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Burnet, F. M. 1936a. “Inapparent Virus Infections.” British Medical Journal 1(3915): 99–103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Burnet, F. M. 1936b. “Letter to Meyer,” 17 February. BANC 76/42cz, Box 91.Google Scholar
  9. Burnet, F. M. 1940. Biological Aspects of Infectious Disease. Cambridge:University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Burnet, F. M. 1945. Virus as Organism: Evolutionary and Ecological Aspects of Some Human Virus Diseases. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Burnet, F. M. 1953. Natural History of Infectious Disease. Cambridge:Cambrdge University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Burnet, F. M., and J. MacNamara. J. 1936. “Human Psittacosis in Australia.” Medical Journal of Australia, (18 July, 1936): 84–88 (p. 88).Google Scholar
  13. Carter, W. E, and Vernon Link. 1956. “Unpublished biography of Karl F. Meyer and related papers, written and compiled by William E. Carter and Vernon B. Link, 1956–1963”. UCSF Library, Archives and Special Collections. MSS 63-1.Google Scholar
  14. Chapin, Charles V. 1910. The Sources and Modes of Infection. 1st ed. New York, London: Wiley/Chapman & Hall.Google Scholar
  15. Cooper, J. E. 1998. “Of Microbes and Men: A Scientific Biography of René Jules Dubos.” Unpublished PhD thesis, Rutgers University.Google Scholar
  16. Crowcroft, P. 1991. Elton’s Ecologists: A History of the Bureau of Animal Population. Chicago:University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  17. Cumpston, J. H. L. 1934. “Letter to K. F. Meyer,” 2 February. BANC 76/42 cz, Box 91.Google Scholar
  18. De Kruif, P. 1950. “Champion Among Microbe Hunters.” Reader’s Digest, pp. 35–40.Google Scholar
  19. Dolman, C. E. 2003. Suppressing the Diseases of Animals and Man: Theobald Smith, Microbiologist. Boston: Boston Medical Library.Google Scholar
  20. Dubos, R. J. 1955. “Second Thoughts on Germ Theory.” Scientific American 192(5): 31–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Dubos, R. J. 1958. “Infection Into Disease.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 1(4): 425–435.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Elberg, S. S. 1990. Sanford S. Elberg: Graduate Education and Microbiology at the University of California, Berkeley, 1930–1989: Interviews. Berkeley, CA:University of California.Google Scholar
  23. Elton, C. S. 1925. “Plague and the Regulation of Numbers in Wild Mammals.” The Journal of Hygiene 24(2): 138–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Elton, C. S. 1927. Animal Ecology. London: Sidgwick and Jackson.Google Scholar
  25. Elton, C. S. 1938a. “Typescript diary of visit to Canada and USA, 29 August—17 October 1938.” Charles Sutherland Elton Papers and Correspondence (1900-91), Bodleian Science Library, NCUAS 39.1.93/C.1-C.57/C.24.Google Scholar
  26. Elton, C. S. 1938b. “Notes on Sylvatic Plague Research in the United States, Report by Charles Elton to Dr Karl F. Meyer, on a visit to California, 2–8 October 1938.” BANC 76/42cz, Box 45.Google Scholar
  27. Elton, C. S. 1938c. “Translations of Russian Publications.” BANC 76/42cz, Box 83.Google Scholar
  28. Elton, C. S. 1939. “Letter to Karl Meyer,” 3 January. BANC 76/42cz, Box 45.Google Scholar
  29. Elton, C. S. 1966 [1933]. The Ecology of Animals. 3rd ed. London: Methuen.Google Scholar
  30. Eskey, C. R., Hass, V. H., Good, Newell E. 1940. Plague in the Western Part of the United States. Washington, D.C.:Federal Security Agency, U.S. Public Health Service.Google Scholar
  31. Evans, E. E. 2003. “Resolution of Respect, Francis C. Evans, 1941–2002.” Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America 84(2): 58–59.Google Scholar
  32. Ewald, P. W. 2004. “Evolution of Virulence.” Infectious Disease Clinics of North America 18: 1–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Farley, J. 1992. “Parasites and the Germ Theory of Disease.” C. E. Rosenberg, J. L. Golden (eds.), Framing Disease: Studies in Cultural History. New Brunswick, N.J:Rutgers University Press, pp. 33–49.Google Scholar
  34. Gessner, U. 2014. “Karl Friedrich Meyer (1884–1974): His Ambitions, Approach and Achievements.” Journal of Medical Biography. doi: 10.1177/0967772013506805.Google Scholar
  35. Gradmann, C. 2009. Laboratory Disease: Robert Koch’s Medical Bacteriology. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  36. Gradmann, C. 2010. “Robert Koch and the invention of the carrier state: tropical medicine, veterinary infections and epidemiology around 1900.” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science Part C 41(3): 232–240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Griffiths, T., and L. Robin (eds). 1997. Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies. Edinburgh: Keele University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Hammon, W. Mc. D., Reeves, William C., Brookman, Bernard, et al. 1941. “Isolation of the Viruses of Western Equine and St. Louis Encephalitis from Culex Tarsalis Mosquitoes.” Science 94(2440): 328–330.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Honigsbaum, M. 2014. “In Search of Sick Parrots: Karl Friedrich Meyer, disease detective.” The Lancet 383(9932): 1880–1881.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kahn, L. H., Kaplan, B., Steele, J. H. 2007. “Confronting Zoonoses through Closer Collaboration between Medicine and Veterinary Medicine (as “One Medicine”).” Veterinaria Italiana 43(1): 5–19.Google Scholar
  41. Kelser, Major R. A. 1933. “Mosquitoes as Vectors of the Virus of Equine Encephalomyelitis.” Journal of American Veterinary Medicine 82: 767.Google Scholar
  42. Kingsland, S. E. 1995. Modelling Nature: Episodes in the History of Population Ecology, 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  43. Lederberg, J. 2000. “Infectious History.” Science 288: 287–293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Ledingham, J. C. G. 1912. The Carrier Problem in Infectious Diseases. International Medical Monographs. London, New York: Edward Arnold/Longmans, Green.Google Scholar
  45. Levinson, W. (ed.). 2008. Review of Medical Microbiology and Immunology. New York:McGraw Hill Professional.Google Scholar
  46. Mendelsohn, J. A. 1996. Cultures of Bacteriology: Formation and Transformation of a Science in France and Germany, 18701914. Unpublished PhD Thesis, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.Google Scholar
  47. Mendelsohn, J. A. 1998. “From Eradication to Equilibrium: How Epidemics became Complex after World War I.” C. Lawrence, G. Weisz (eds.), Greater Than The Parts: Holism in Biomedicine, 1921–1950. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 303–331.Google Scholar
  48. McCoy, G. W. 1911. Studies upon Plague in Ground Squirrels (in Four Parts): II. A Plague-like Disease of Rodents. Public Health Bulletin, 43. Washington, D.C: Government Printing Office.Google Scholar
  49. Méthot, P.-O. 2012. “Why Do Parasites Harm Their Host? On the Origin and Legacy of Theobald Smith’s “Law of Declining Virulence” 1900–1980.” History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences 34(4): 561–601.Google Scholar
  50. Meyer, K. F. 1909. “Preliminary note on the transmission of East Coast fever to cattle by intraperitoneal inoculation of the spleen or portions of the spleen to a sick animal.” Journal of Comparative Pathology & Therapy 22(3): 213–217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Meyer, K. F. 1909–10. “Notes on the nature of Koch’s granules and their role in the pathogenesis of East Coast Fever.” Union of South Africa, Department of Agriculture, Report on the Government Veterinary Bacteriologist for the year 1909–1910, Pretoria: The Government Printing and Stationery Office, pp. 56–68.Google Scholar
  52. Meyer, K. F. 1911. “Piroplasma (The Development of Piroplasma Parvum); the Cause of East Coast Fever in South Africa.” Proceedings Pathological Society Philadelphia 14(2): 52–53.Google Scholar
  53. Meyer, K. F. 1925. “The ‘Bacterial Symbiosis’ in the Concretion Deposits of Certain Operculate Land Mollusks of the Families Cyclostomatidae and Annulariidae.” Journal of Infectious Diseases 36(1): 1–107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Meyer, K. F. 1931. “The Animal Kingdom—A Reservoir of Disease.” Proceedings of Internal Medicine Chicago 8(14–15): 234–261.Google Scholar
  55. Meyer, K. F. 1932. “Psittacosis Meeting.” Los Angeles, California, 2 March. BANC 76/42 cz, Box 89.Google Scholar
  56. Meyer, K. F. 1933. “Equine Encephalomyelitis.” North American Veterinarian 14: 30–48.Google Scholar
  57. Meyer, K. F. 1934a. “Equine Encephalomyletis in 1933.” Animal Pathology Exchange, College of Agriculture, University of Illinois. BANC 76/42cz, Box 62.Google Scholar
  58. Meyer, K. F. 1934b “Letter to J.H.L. Cumpston,” 2 February. BANC 76/42 cz, Box 91.Google Scholar
  59. Meyer, K. F. 1936a. “Latent Infections.” Journal of Bacteriology 31(2): 109–135.Google Scholar
  60. Meyer, K. F. 1936b “Letter to F. M. Burnet,” 21 July. BANC 76/42cz, Box 91.Google Scholar
  61. Meyer, K. F. 1936c. “Instructional Short Course on Sylvatic Plague.” BANC 76/42cz, Box 88.Google Scholar
  62. Meyer, K. F. 1937. “Why Epidemics.” U.S. Naval.“ Bulletin 37(2): 333–351.Google Scholar
  63. Meyer, K. F. 1939. “The Host-Parasite Relationship in the Heterogeneous Infection Chains.” Harvey Society New York Lectures 35: 91–134.Google Scholar
  64. Meyer, K. F. 1941. “Infectious Disease.” Science 94(2441): 346–358.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Meyer, K. F. 1942a. “The Ecology of Plague.” Medicine 21(2): 143–174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Meyer, K. F. 1942b. “The Ecology of Psittacosis and Ornithosis.” Medicine 21(2): 175–205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Meyer, K. F. 1957a. “Acceptance of the Walter Reed Medal.” The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene 6(2): 341–346.Google Scholar
  68. Meyer, K. F. 1957b. “The Natural History of Plague and Psittacosis.” Public Health Reports (1896–1970) 72(8): 705–719.Google Scholar
  69. Meyer, K. F. 1960. “The WHO—A Force in Human Ecology.” Unpublished draft. BANC 76/42cz. Box 45.Google Scholar
  70. Meyer, K. F. 1976. Medical Research and Public Health. An Interview conducted by Edna Tartaul Daniel in 1961 and 1962 sponsored by the University of California and The National Library of Medicine. Berkeley, CA.: The Regents of the University of California.Google Scholar
  71. Meyer, K. F., and B. Eddie. 1933. “Latent Psittacosis Infections in Shell Parakeets.” Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and Medicine 30: 484–488.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Meyer, K. F., Eddie, B. 1934. “Psittacosis in Native Australian Budgerigars.” Proceedings Society Experimental Biology and Medicine 31(8): 917–920.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Meyer, K. F., Eddie, B., Stevens, I.M. 1935. “Recent Studies on Psittacosis.” American Journal of Public Health 25(5): 571–579.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Mitman, G. 1992. The State of Nature: Ecology, Community and American Social Thought, 1900–1950. Chicago: Chicago University Press.Google Scholar
  75. Moberg, C. L. 2005. René Dubos, Friend of the Good Earth: Microbiologist, Medical Scientist, Environmentalist. Washington, D.C: ASM Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Nash, L. 2006. Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  77. Odum, E. P. 1959. Fundamentals of Ecology, 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Saunders.Google Scholar
  78. Orent, W. 2004. Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of The World’s Most Dangerous Disease. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  79. Parker, R. R. 1936. “Tentative Outline for Research on the Epizootiology of Sylvatic Plague in the Rocky Mountain Region and Adjacent Areas.” BANC 76/42cz, Box 83, “Plague Studies”.Google Scholar
  80. Pavlovsky, E. N. 1966. Natural Nidality of Transmissible Diseases: With Special reference to the Landscape Epidemiology of Zooanthroponoses. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
  81. Reeves, W. C. 1993. Arbovirologist and Professor, UC Berkeley School of Public Health. University History Series. Berkeley, CA: University of California.Google Scholar
  82. Reeves, W. C., and W. McD. Hammon. 1962. Epidemiology of the Arthropod-Borne Viral Encephalitides in Kern County, California, 19431952. University of California Publications in Public health. Vol. 4, Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  83. Sabin, A. D. 1980. Karl Friedrich Meyer, 1884–1974, A Biographical Memoir. Washington DC: National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, National Academy Press.Google Scholar
  84. Simon, C. E. 1919. Human Infection Carriers: Their Significance, Recognition and Management. Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger.Google Scholar
  85. Smith, T. 1981 [1903]. “Presidential Address to the Society of American Bacteriologists, Philadelphia, 29–30 December, 1903.” ASM News 47: 231–235.Google Scholar
  86. Smith, T. 1904. “Some Problems in the Life History of Pathogenic Microorganisms.” Science 20(520): 817–832.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Smith, T. 1921. “Parasitism as a Factor in Disease.” Science 54: 99–108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Smith, T. 1934. Parasitism and Disease. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  89. Tilley, H. 2004. “Ecologies of Complexity: Tropical Environments, African Trypanosomiasis, and the Science of Disease Control in British Colonial Africa, 1900–1940.” Osiris 2(19): 21–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Vandermeer, J. H. 1972. “Niche Theory.” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 3: 107–132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Vishelessky, S. N, Glecker, N. E. and Bouchnev, K. N. 1934. “The Equine Encephalomyelitis of Horse.” Veterinary Research Institute, Moscow. BANC 76/42cz, Box 62.Google Scholar
  92. Way, A. G. 2015. “The Invisible and Indeterminable Value of Ecology: From Malaria Control to Ecological Research in the American South.” Isis 106(2):310–336.Google Scholar
  93. Wherry, W. B. 1908. “Plague among the Ground Squirrels of California.” The Journal of Infectious Diseases 5: 485–506.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Wilkinson, L. 1993. “Brucellosis.” Kenneth F. Kiple (ed.), The Cambridge World History of Human Disease. Cambridge; NY: Cambridge University Press, pp. 625–628.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  95. Woods, A., Bresalier, M. 2014. “One Health, Many Histories.” Veterinary Record 174(26): 650–654.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Worboys, M. 1988. “Manson, Ross and Colonial Medical Policy: Tropical Medicine in London and Liverpool, 1899–1914.” R. M. MacLeod, JL Milton (eds.), Disease, Medicine, and Empire: Perspectives on Western Medicine and the Experience of European Expansion. London: Routledge, pp. 21–37.Google Scholar
  97. Worster, D. 1994. Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. 2nd ed. Studies in Environment and History. Cambridge; New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  98. Zabusky, A. N. 1986. “Ecological Odyssey: The Intellectual Development of René J. Dubos.” Unpublished MA thesis, Harvard University.Google Scholar
  99. Zinsser, H. 1987. “Biographical Memoir of Theobald Smith, 1859–1934.” Reviews of Infectious Diseases 9(3): 636–654.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2015

Open AccessThis 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.

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.LondonUK

Personalised recommendations