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No. 1210:
Pasteur's Biomilitarism

Today, the language of war attaches itself to medicine. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Geologist Scott Montgomery's book, The Scientific Voice, dives deep into the language of science, and what he finds is anything but scientific detachment [1]. He tracks the way the language of science bends science itself to fit cultural norms and metaphors.

He gives examples: psychology, Japanese science, how we've studied the moon in terms of the language we use to describe it. His most telling chapter might be the one on medicine and language.

For example, when Harvey studied blood flow in the 17th century, most people thought blood made one pass through the body, that it was generated, then consumed in various tissues. Harvey showed blood moved in a closed loop and he called that motion "circulation." Others had suggested a closed loop, but it hadn't caught on. Blood didn't circulate until Harvey gave us the right word.

A huge linguistic transition occurred around 1870 and Louis Pasteur had much to do with it. Early 19th-century doctors still said the plague infected people or lay upon them. It didn't attack them, or strike them down. That's what armies did, not diseases.

When Pasteur was young, disease was caused by an excess of irritation or an overabundance of vital force. But at the same time he articulated his germ theory, the language of Europe was shot through with military metaphors. Politics also used metaphors that cast the nation-state as a living being. Bad policy might be called a disease in the body politic.

So germs became an invading army. While the Prussians lay siege to Paris, Pasteur was saying that, in fermentation, germs laid siege to beer and wine. He pressed the analogy relentlessly. When he wrote on public affairs he said France had been enfeebled by revolution and rendered sterile by political theory.

For over a century since, medicine has embraced those metaphors. AIDS stalks us; it uses many strategies in its attack. It invades and kills T-cells. Disease strikes the body's defenses. As doctors became soldiers at war with illness the metaphor carried into medical practice. An intern's training resembles nothing more than my own experience in basic training. Hospitals are organized in a militaristic hierarchy with the doctor as general.

Alternative medicine has become less a body of technical knowledge than an attempt at linguistic reform. And as it tries to claim legitimacy it too slips back into military metaphor. It calls the mind to marshal forces of good in the battleground of our body.

The only way we'll bring medicine into better alignment with our human nature, Montgomery says, is by heightening awareness. Just as we've had to do in areas of sexism and racism, we have to be aware of the words we use. Medicine can be changed and, indeed, it must be. The military metaphor has run to the end of its usefulness. But the changes are ones we can make only after we've created a new language of medical discourse.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

1. Montgomery, S. C., The Scientific Voice. New York: The Guilford Press, 1996. See especially Chapter 3.


Picture of Pasteur from Munsey's Magazine, May 1897