Reframing Disease Reservoirs: Histories & Ethnographies of Pathogens & Pestilence

26-28 May 2021

1st annual conference of The Global War Against the Rat and the Epistemic Emergence of Zoonosis project; Online Conference, Department of Social Anthropology, University of St Andrews

26-28 May 2021

Registration is free. To register please contact: by May 14 2021

The idea of disease reservoirs – that particular animals, people, or environments harbour or distribute disease – has profoundly shaped human relationships to nature. From plague-stricken rats and trypanosomiasis-harbouring zebra to bats as suspect reservoirs of COVID-19 or Ebola, animals have been central to epidemiology and disease management since the end of the nineteenth century. Creatures bearing the label of ‘reservoir’ have been cast as reviled pests to be eliminated, managed as potential risks through new forms of sanitary intervention or mapped with curiosity about the diversity of their species. Moreover, entire environments have been denounced as ‘diseased’ or ‘unhealthy’ or in need of ‘cleansing’ through vast sanitary campaigns. Marginalised humans, likewise, have been stigmatized as reservoirs of disease and, at times, such thinking has been deployed in justification of segregation and discrimination. With its range of meanings and uncertainties, the concept of a disease reservoir has been epistemologically fraught, taking on different meanings amongst different groups of people in different periods. What constitutes a reservoir, and which animals, plants, or environments are reservoirs of disease? How and where did this concept emerge and why? What is its intellectual lineage? Which other medical concepts intersected with the idea of the disease reservoir throughout its history?

Bringing together perspectives from the humanities and the social sciences in dialogue with the life sciences, this online conference seeks to understand the past and present of disease reservoirs. In so doing, it aims to elucidate the historical construction of the concept of a disease reservoir, its epistemological complexities and ethnographic realities, and to examine how it has shaped relationships between humans, animals, space, wilderness and the environment.


Matheus Alves Duarte da Silva (University of St Andrews)

Jules Skotnes-Brown (University of St Andrews)

Oliver French (University of St Andrews)

In collaboration with Frédéric Keck (CNRS – Collège de France – EHESS)

Conference Programme (all times are BST)

Wednesday 26 May 2021

9:30-10:00       Welcome and Opening Remarks

10:30-12:30     Panel 1: Animals in Motion | Chair: Matheus Alves Duarte da Silva (University of St Andrews)

Freya L. Jephcott (University of Cambridge) Folie à Plusieurs: An ethnographic study of a suspected newly-emerging infectious disease outbreak investigation in the Brong-Ahafo Region of Ghana 

Deborah Nadal (University of Glasgow) Dogs as Carriers of Justice: Rabies and social discrimination in rural Western India

Maidul Rahaman (Kazi Nazrul University) Animal Habitation as Disease Reservoirs in British India: Colonial adjustments and maladjustments to the disease reservoirs

Frédéric Keck (CNRS-Collège de France-EHESS) The Parrot Fever Pandemic: Wild birds as a global reservoir

12:30-13:30     Lunchtime Social

13:30-15:30     Panel 2: Animal Friends or Foes | Chair: Jules Skotnes-Brown (University of St Andrews)

Jaime Larry Benchimol (Casa de Oswaldo Cruz/Fiocruz) Rodents and Leishmaniasis

Jordan Goodman (University College London) “Call on Nature”: Species sanitation, habitat and biological control of malaria in the early-twentieth century – Gambusia affinis against the mosquito

Emmanuelle Roth (University of Cambridge) The ‘Ebola Bat’ Fetish: Virus samplers and disease reservoir research in post-Ebola Guinea

Jacob Steere-Williams (College of Charleston) Putting Rats on the Map: Plague and anti-epidemic labour in early 20th century South Africa

15:30-16:30 Break

16:30-18:00     Keynote Address: Genese Sodikoff (Rutgers University) The Proverbial Reservoir: Moralising with rats in Madagascar’s plague zones

 Thursday 27 May 2021

10:30-12:30     Panel 1: Environment, Climate and Ecosystem | Chair: Frédéric Keck (CNRS – Collège de France – EHESS)

Matheus Alves Duarte da Silva (University of St Andrews) Plague Deserts: Wild rodents, international organizations and the emergence of sylvatic plague (1907-1935)

Virginia Ghelarducci (School of Advanced Study, University of London) Eclipses, Epidemics and Other Diseases in José Hipólito Unanue’s Observaciones sobre el clima de Lima

Karen Sayer (Leeds Trinity University) Edges of Disease and Boundary Animals in Agri-Cultural Space: Farming the twentieth century

Ann H. Kelly (King’s College London) Contacts of Contacts of Contacts: Ebola vaccine ‘rings’ and the pragmatics of inclusion in humanitarian experimentation

12:30-13:30     Lunchtime Social 

13:30-15:00     Panel 2: Race, Sexuality and Indigeneity | Chair: Lukas Engelamann (University of Edinburgh)

Marcel Charour (Austrian Exhibition Centre Schallaburg) Modernizing a Disease Reservoir? Politics, economy and the medical discourse on the plague and the Eastern Mediterranean in German medical publications between 1780 and 1840

Richard A. McKay (University of Cambridge) Draining the Reservoir: Mid-twentieth-century venereal disease control and the rise of the male homosexual, 1936 to 1969 

Bruno Silva Santos (Federal University of São Carlos) The Beauty of the Forests and the Dirt of the Cities: An ethnography of the Guarani-Mbya people and rats in the Jaraguá Indigenous Land (São Paulo, Brazil)

15:00-15:30 Break

15:30-17:30     Panel 3: Imperial Spaces | Chair: Christos Lynteris (University of St Andrews)

Adebisi Alade (McMaster University) The Sanitizing Mission: Germ reservoir, British colonial administration and African agency in Western Nigeria

Jules Skotnes-Brown (University of St Andrews) Rat Reservoirs at Sea: Rats, spaces, and contamination on British and American imperial vessels, 1820s-1920s

Nükhet Varlik (Rutgers University) Plague Reservoirs in the Ottoman Empire

Susan D. Jones (University of Minnesota) Donors, Recipients and the Biogeocenose: The reservoir concept in Soviet disease ecology

Friday 28 May 2021

10:30-12:30     Panel 1: Buildings and Infrastructures | Chair: Oliver French (University of St Andrews)

Maurits Bastiaan Meerwijk (Hong Kong University) The House as Host: Plague, malaria, and home improvement in Java

Jack Greatrex (Hong Kong University) Reservoirs as Reservoirs: Infrastructures of disease in colonial Malaya and Hong Kong, 1890s-1940s

Almudena Marí Sáez (Robert Koch Institute) & Hannah Brown (Durham University) More-than-human Homes: Spaces and temporalities of the Lassa Fever reservoir

Fritha Langerman (University of Cape Town) Porous Species: Indeterminacy and contagion as curatorial devices

12:30-13:30     Lunchtime Social

 16:00-18:00     Panel 2: Cities and Architecture | Chair: Jules Skotnes-Brown (University of St Andrews)

Simone Luna (Casa de Oswaldo Cruz/Fiocruz) The National Plague Service and the Fight Against the Bubonic Plague in Brazil (1940-1950)

Emily Webster (University of Chicago) A Plague on the Land, on the Sea, and in the Sewers: Yersinia pestis and the genus Rattus in Bombay, India

Christos Lynteris (University of St Andrews) Bridging Plague Intervals: British colonial medical approaches to inter-epidemic maintenance in urban environments

Christopher Kelty (University of California, Los Angeles) The Rodent Bait Station as Reservoir

18:00-18:15 Break

18:15-19:45     Reframing Disease Reservoirs Roundtable and closing remarks | Chair: Frédéric Keck (CNRS – Collège de France – EHESS)

Michael Kosoy (KB One Health)

Jakob Zinstaag (Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute)

Tamara Giles-Vernick (Institut Pasteur)