‘Birth, life, and death of infectious diseases’: Charles Nicolle (1866–1936) and the invention of medical ecology in France

  • Pierre-Olivier MéthotEmail author
Original Paper
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Microbes, Networks, Knowledge: Disease Ecology in the 20th Century


In teasing out the diverse origins of our “modern, ecological understanding of epidemic disease” (Mendelsohn, in: Lawrence and Weisz (eds) Greater than the parts: holism in biomedicine, 1920–1950, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998), historians have downplayed the importance of parasitology in the development of a natural history perspective on disease. The present article reassesses the significance of parasitology for the “invention” of medical ecology in post-war France. Focussing on the works of microbiologist Charles Nicolle (1866–1936) and on that of physician and zoologist Hervé Harant (1901–1986), I argue that French “medical ecology” was not professionally (or cognitively) insulated from some major trends in parasitology, especially in Tunis where disciplinary borders in the medical sciences collapsed. This argument supports the claim that ecological perspectives of disease developed in colonial context (Anderson in Osiris 19: 39–61, 2004) but I show that parasitologists such as Harant built on the works of medical geographers who had called attention to the dynamic and complex biological relations between health and environment in fashioning the field of medical ecology in the mid-1950s. As the network of scientists who contributed to the global emergence of “disease ecology” is widening, both medical geography and parasitology stand out as relevant sites of inquiries for a broader historical understanding of the multiple “ecological visions” in twentieth-century biomedical sciences.


Parasitology Medical geography Relapsing fevers Hervé Harant Max Sorre Ludovic Blaizot 



Versions of this article were presented at the Brocher Foundation in Geneva (2015); during a session at the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology conference in Montreal (2015); at the conference “Making Microbes Complexe: Parasites, Epidemics and the Intellectual Origins of Disease Ecology” at Queen Mary University in London (2016); and as a keynote lecture on the occasion of the annual retreat of the Pasteur-Paris University (PPU) doctoral programme in microbiology at Le Touquet, Paris-Plage (2018). This article benefited greatly from the comments and feedback of the participants at these different events. I am especially grateful to Warwick Anderson, Jon Arrizabalaga, Christoph Gradmann, Mark Honigsbaum, Anne-Marie Moulin, Staffan Müller-Wille, and Kim Pelis for their constructive comments on earlier drafts of the manuscript. Thanks also to Susan Jones for directing me to the concepts of Pavlovsky and to Anna Amramina for her help in retrieving the Nicolle-Pavlovsky’s correspondence at the Academy of the Sciences in St-Petersburg. At the Pasteur Institute, I am grateful to Daniel Demellier and Geneviève Milon for guiding me through the papers and the thought of Charles Nicolle and Hervé Harant; and Michäel Davy for his permission to use the Nicolle photographs. In Montpellier, my thanks go to Jean-Pierre-Dedet for providing access to Harant’s collection of published and unpublished manuscripts and for his useful comments on an earlier draft. This paper was mostly written during research stays at the Institute for the Humanities in Medicine (IHM) in Lausanne in the summer of 2015, 2016, and 2017. I would like to thank Vincent Barras, director of IHM, and Maïka Casse, librairian, for her help in locating Nicolle’s and Harant’s articles. Generous financial support of the Fonds de Recherche du Québec – Société et Culture is gratefully acknowledge.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculté de PhilosophieUniversité LavalQuebec CityCanada

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