Creature features: The lively narratives of bacteriophages in Soviet biology and medicine

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The term ‘bacteriophage’ (devourer of bacteria) was coined by Felix D’Herelle in 1917 to describe both the phenomenon of spontaneous destruction of bacterial cultures and an agent responsible. Debates about the nature of bacteriophages raged in the 1920s and 30s, there were also extensive attempts to use the phenomenon to fight infections. While it eventually became a crucial tool for molecular biology, therapeutic uses of ‘phage’ declined sharply in the West after World War II, but persisted in the Soviet Union, particularly Georgia. Increasingly isolated form Western medical research, Soviet scientists developed their own metaphors of phage, its nature and action, and communication them to their peers, medical professionals and potential patients. In this article, I explore four kinds of narratives that shaped Soviet phage research: the mystique of bacteriophages the 1920s and 30s, animated accounts and military metaphors in the 1940s, Lysenkoist takes on bacteriophages as a phase in bacterial development, and the retrospective allocation of credit for the discovery of the bacteriophage during the Cold War. While viruses have been largely seen as barely living, phage narratives consistently featured heroic liveliness or ‘animacy’ that frames the growing consensus on its viral nature. Postwar narratives, shaped by the Lysenkoist turn and the campaigns against adulation of the West, had political power – while many microbiologists remained sceptical, they had to frame their critique within the correct language if they wanted to be published. The dramatic story of bacteriophage research in the Soviet Union is a reminder of the extent to which scientific narratives can be shaped by politics, but it also highlights the diversity of strategies and alternative interpretations possible within those constrains.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)579–597
JournalNotes and Records of the Royal Society
Issue number4
Early online date15 Jan 2020
Publication statusPublished - 4 Nov 2020