Charles Nicolle, Pasteur's Imperial Missionary

April 2006
16 black and white illustrations
418 pages
9x6 in
Rochester Studies in Medical History
Library eBook
University of Rochester Press
BISAC BIO017000, MED039000, MED022090

Charles Nicolle, Pasteur's Imperial Missionary

Typhus and Tunisia

Kim Pelis

Kim Pelis uses a wide range of French and Tunisian archival materials and a close reading of Nobel Prize-winning bacteriologist Charles Nicolle's scientific papers and philosophical treatises to explore the relationship of science and medicine to society and culture in the first third of the twentieth century.
This book examines the biomedical research of Nobel Prize-winning bacteriologist Charles Nicolle during his tenure as director of the Pasteur Institute of Tunis. Using typhus as its lens, it demonstrates how the complexities of early twentieth century bacteriology, French imperial ideology, the "Pastorian mission," and conditions in colonial Tunisia blended to inform the triumphs and disappointments of Nicolle's fascinating career. It illuminates how these diverse elements shaped Nicolle's personal identity, the identity of his institute, and his innovative conception of the "birth, life, and death" -- or, the emergence and eradication -- of infectious disease.
Kim Pelis blends exhaustive archival research with a close reading of Nicolle's written work -- scientific papers, philosophical treatises, and literary contributions -- to explore the complex relations between biomedical ideas and sociocultural context. The result is a study that will be of interest not only to students of French history, colonial medicine, and the history of the biomedical sciences but also to anyone seeking to understand how individuals have attempted to deal creatively with complex times and ambiguous knowledge.

Kim Pelis, a medical historian by training, is a writer for the director of the National Institutes of Health.

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Table of Contents

Prelude: The Substance of Shadows
Introduction: The Door of the Sadiki
Staring at the Sea: Nicolle and the Pasteur Institute of Tunis
The Threshold of Civilization: Typhus in Tunisia
Light & Shadow: Lousy War and Fractured Peace
Alliances: "Emperor of the Mediterranean"?
Invisible Forces: or, Action at a Distance
Reservoir Docs: Birth, Life, and Death of Infectious Disease
Mosaics of Power: Confronting Paris
At Home with My Shadows: Patrie de Nomade


Kim Pelis has written a magesterial biography of Charles Nicolle, the Nobel prize-winning microbiologist who demonstrated the louse-borne transmission of one of humankind's most dreaded scourges: typhus fever. But this beautifully written book covers so much more than Nicolle's exemplary scientific life. Indeed, it is a superb and scholarly exploration of late nineteenth and early twentieth century medicine, colonialism, international public health, and the social and cultural history of disease. --Howard Markel, M.D., Ph.D., George E. Wantz Professor of the History of Medicine, University of Michigan, author of When Germs Travel

Charles Nicolle was one of the most complex and creative of Pasteur's disciples. His combination as scientist, clinician, administrator, novelist, philosopher, and tortured individual makes him a fascinating man. Kim Pelis has done justice to all facets of Nicolle's life and work. This is a gem of a book. --W. F. Bynum, M.D, Ph.D, FRCP, Professor Emeritus of History of Medicine, University College London

There was no shortage of competition in the hunt for the cause of typhus, and Nicolle's claim to have discovered the louse as the agent of transmission did not go uncontested. Few important discoveries do. Taking us through the socio-scientific history of typhus, Pelis adroitly details how Nicolle and his close collaborator, Ernest Conseil [Director of public health in Tunis], arrived at their discovery. H-FRANCE, January 2007

Author Bio

Now working full time for the NIH as a researcher/historian, 7/07. Kim Pelis is visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Notre Dame.

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