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The biological age of plant virus research: studying viruses through other organisms in 1920s and 1930s Britain

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Starting in the mid-1930s, virus research was revolutionised by advancements in biophysical and biochemical instrumentation, which allowed for the physicochemical isolation and analysis of these pathogens and heralded the dawn of molecular biology. Historians of science and science studies scholars have written much on this subject, particularly in what concerns the study of viruses in the context of biomedical sciences. This presentation focuses on an earlier period, when the mere existence of viruses was uncertain, as they could only be studied indirectly through the observation of their hosts’ disease symptoms. Here, the emphasis is on the integration of agricultural scientific knowledge, expertise and practices into early virus research. Therefore, the central case study is an institution emblematic of the development of state-sponsored agricultural research in the first half of the twentieth century: the Potato Virus Research Station, installed in Cambridge in 1927 to study and control plant virus diseases. Especial attention is given to the research of Kenneth M. Smith, an agricultural entomologist, who developed a method of virus isolation using complex multi-species biological interactions as ‘models’. This implied deploying different organisms as instruments in a then-novel space of science: insect-proof glasshouses.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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