Sunday, February 23, 2020

Aro Velmet's "Pasteur's Empire"

Aro Velmet is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Southern California.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Pasteur's Empire: Bacteriology and Politics in France, Its Colonies, and the World, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Pasteur’s Empire, I discuss Charles Nicolle’s ascension to the head of the Pasteur Institute of Tunis in 1903. I argue that unlike his colleagues at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, Nicolle thought of himself not as a monastic laboratory scientist, but as an agent of empire, who worked hand-in-glove with the colonial government. In Tunis, he oversaw the construction of the Institute’s building at the Jardin d’Essai, which was opened to great fanfare in 1905.
While Nicolle spent considerable time demonstrating the scientific facilities of the laboratory, he was equally interested in showing it as a space from which imperial power flowed; during the day of the inauguration, ‘outside, workers were paving roads, sanding the avenues, and painters on every corner were doing multicolor retouching.’ Arab workers were changing the very face of the city to celebrate the new institute.
I go on to discuss how Nicolle’s more extraverted approach to science led him to conflicts with his colleagues in Paris – in issues ranging from the economics of vaccine production to the representation of their intellectual father, Louis Pasteur.
Charles Nicolle turns out to be a central player in Pasteur’s empire, a network of microbiological laboratories that extended across France’s colonies, with outposts in Saigon, Hanoi, Dakar, Brazzaville, Algiers, Tunis, Casablanca, Tananarive, and elsewhere, including outside the French empire proper. Nicolle sponsored human trials of the Pasteur Institute’s yellow fever vaccine, when Émile Roux in Paris would not allow them; he supported Albert Calmette’s research on tuberculosis; he even attempted to take over the Paris Institute.

Pasteur’s Empire argues that different political and infrastructural conditions in different colonies, all of which had a Pastorian outpost, were a tremendous resource of French microbiologists: vaccine projects that began, for example, as promises to African politicians in Dakar could be developed in laboratories in Paris, tested in Tunis, and then rolled out across West Africa. Simultaneously, living and working in colonial territories changed the Pastorians. People like Charles Nicolle, Alexandre Yersin or Albert Calmette began to think differently about the role of the scientist once they gained experience with lobbying administrators and serving on colonial public health boards.

Page 99 focuses on Charles Nicolle’s changing scientific ethos, but the rest of the book delves into how microbes themselves could influence political struggles in various colonies. The reader will learn, for example, how French industrialists used Pastorian science to justify monopolizing alcohol and opium production in Indochina, why Vietnamese doctors and activists resisted BCG vaccination programs, how a yellow fever outbreak in Dakar led Africans to accuse French administrators of racism and kickstarted an unprecedented Pastorian mass-vaccination campaign with troubling consequences. Understanding colonial political conflicts requires understanding both the microscopic – the behavior and manipulation of yeasts and bacteria – and the macroscopic – the tricontinental network of Pasteur Institutes, their visions of imperial power, and the equally transnational ways in which colonial subjects, rival scientists, and frustrated administrators challenged them.
Learn more about Pasteur's Empire at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue