Skip to main content

Pasteur's Empire - French Expertise, Colonialism, and Transnational Science

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PE-FECATS (Pasteur's Empire - French Expertise, Colonialism, and Transnational Science)

Reporting period: 2017-07-01 to 2019-06-30

"In the 1890s, the Pasteur Institute established a network of laboratories that stretched across France’s empire, from Indochina to West Africa. Quickly, researchers at these laboratories became central to France’s colonial project, helping officials monopolize industries, develop public health codes, establish disease containment measures, and arbitrate political conflicts around questions of labor rights, public works, and free association.

The objective of the Marie Curie action ""Pasteur’s Empire"" was to study how the scientific prestige of the Pasteur Institute came to depend on its colonial laboratories, and how, conversely, the institutes themselves became central to colonial politics. Thie research project has argued that decisions as small as the isolation of a particular yeast or the choice of a laboratory animal could have tremendous consequences on the lives of Vietnamese and African subjects, who became the consumers of new vaccines or industrially fermented intoxicants. Simultaneously, global forces, such as the rise of international standards and American competitors pushed Pastorians to their imperial laboratories, where they could conduct studies that researchers in France considered too difficult or controversial. Research conducted for this project followed not just Alexandre Yersin’s studies of the plague, Charles Nicolle’s public health work in Tunisia, and Constant Mathis’ work on yellow fever in Dakar, but also the activities of Vietnamese doctors, African students and politicians, Syrian traders, and Chinese warlords. The project argued that a specifically Pastorian understanding of microbiology shaped French colonial politics across the world, allowing French officials to promise hygienic modernity while actually committing to little development. In bringing together global history, imperial history, and science and technology studies, Pasteur’s Empire deftly integrates micro and macro analyses into one connected narrative that sheds critical light on a key era in the history of medicine.

The project's importance to society is twofold: First, it revealed how seemingly humanitarian enterprises, such as the creation of vaccines and microbiological research, was deeply enmeshed in colonial societies. The infrastructural, legal, and political inequalities within the French empire quite concretely made Pastorian advances possible. Second, the project uncovered the role of local actors - Vietnamese doctors, African activists etc. - in this research, as activists and scientists, but also as research subjects and patients.

The objectives of the Marie Curie action were to facilitate the completion of a scholarly monograph on this topic, as well as several peer-reviewed articles, to lay the groundwork for the researcher's next project, and to exploit and disseminate the results of this research through to the public in Estonian and in English. These goals were all completed."
"- The researcher published a peer-reviewed article on the politics of tuberculosis vaccination in a high-impact generalist history journal. This article appeared in print in July 2019 in The Journal of Global History, one of the most cited journals in the discipline.

- The researcher had another peer-review article accepted on the role of infrastructural and political inequalities and the Pastorian imperial network. This article was accepted in January 2019 and is scheduled for publication in French Historical Studies, the flagship journal in French history, in 2020.

- The researcher completed and submitted a monograph on the Pasteur Institute's international network and its colonial politics to Oxford University Press, where it was accepted and is currently in production. The monograph, titled ""Pasteur's Empire: Bacteriology and Politics in France, its Empire, and the World"" is scheduled for publication in late 2019/early 2020

- The researcher made significant progress towards a following project on the transnational history of cybernetics, data processing, and governance in Eastern Europe. This exploratory research led to the publication of one peer reviewed article on the politics of gender and nationalism in late Soviet Estonia (The Journal of the History of Ideas, July 2019), and to another article that has been accepted for publication in the journal Engaging Science, Technology, and Society on the projects of digital governance in early Post-Soviet Estonia (publication date in late 2019/early 2020).

- Though time constraints did not permit a secondment to Paris, the researcher nevertheless organized a two-day workshop on the politics of standards in microbiology (in collaboration with Claas Kirchhelle), which took place in April 2019, at Oxford University. This workshop led to plans for an edited journal issue which has been proposed to Engaging Science, Technology, and Society for late 2020.

- The researcher organized a day-long workshop for forty graduate students at Tallinn University in early 2019, focusing on the history of cybernetics and digital governance (in collaboraton with Egle Rindzeviciute), in order to further develop ideas for the second project.

- The researcher has continuously published articles on the politics of global health, microbiology and colonialism for a general audience, including for the Estonian magazine Vikerkaar, the English web-based portal of cultural journalism Eurozine, the tech website Gizmodo, and hosted relevant events for a broad audience at Oxford (for example, a tour of Wadham College's colonial history, a discussion of the ethics of scientific research in postcolonial sites, etc) and elsewhere, for example, the Kumu art museum in Tallinn, Estonia."
- The monograph, as well as the peer-reviewed articles have reframed scholarship on French colonialism, bringing into focus the centrality of non-state research institutions, which provided much of the logic and arguments for a variety of state decisions that resulted in significant underinvestment in the colonies.

- The monograph has brought to light major ethical lapses in vaccine testing, recognized by researchers at the time, that contributed to the roll-out of the Dakar yellow fever vaccine strain, which led to infant deaths recorded in the 1960s and the discontinuation of the vaccine by the WHO in the 1970s. The research project demonstrates conclusively that French researchers were aware of this potential problems as early as the 1930s.

- Socio-economically, in conversation with other researchers working on similar topics in France, the UK, and the US, the project contributes to a broader reassessment of the role of early public health work in colonialism, and shows how infrastructure developed in that period structure inequalities in the Global South to this day.
Inauguration of the Pasteur Institute in 1888.