Institute for Bioethics and Health Humanities Seminar
Tubercular Publics/Molecular Publics:
Emergent Socio-technical Forms and the Diagnosis, Treatment,
and Epidemiology of M. Tuberculosis, 1880s – present
Stephen Molldrem, PhD
Department of Preventive Medicine and Population Health
Institute for Bioethics and Health Humanities
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In this talk, I describe a series of shifts in the history of Mycobacterium tuberculosis (TB) from the discovery of TB bacteria in the 1880s to the present. Drawing on social theory and historical scholarship, I re-periodize the history of TB by centering the socio-technical forms – which I call “molecular publics” – that emerged alongside key innovations in the diagnosis, treatment, and epidemiology of TB. I first discuss public fanfare during the period of TB discovery from the early 1880s to the mid-1940s, after the tubercle bacillus was identified but remained incurable. I then describe the era of TB cure from the 1940s to the early 21st century, when TB became curable but where the identification of treatment-resistant strains using innovative diagnostic tools became increasingly central to TB disease control. Finally, I characterize the emergent moment of TB genomics, where “next-generation” genomic sequencing and novel bioinformatic tools promise to revolutionize TB research, treatment, and control during a time when global health agencies warn of a future where all TB treatments could become ineffective. I ultimately show that centering how innovations in infectious disease science produce new socio-technical forms opens novel pathways into understanding the politics, history, and governance of communicable pathogens.