Archives at the National Centre for Biological Sciences
Public Lecture Series
49th edition
Monthly talks framed around explorations in and around archives. Discussions by artists, archivists, academics, lawyers, teachers, journalists and others.
Historical adventures in virus hunting
Neeraja Sankaran
Friday, August 19 2022. 5:00pm.
Lecture Hall – 1 (Haapus), NCBS
Other than politics, viruses have been the dominant topic in the news for nearly three years now. Yet it is debatable whether the concept of “virus” itself is well understood by a large fraction of the people who bandy the term about. Indeed, although viruses may have even been the first life forms to appear on earth, and have been affecting human populations for as long as humans have existed, they were not defined until about the 1950s. This presentation looks at the history of development of the virus concept in biology and medicine, from the first usage in the English language—when it had multiple meanings—to its modern definition. In particular I will be focusing on the rather paradoxical role played by the research on two particular viruses (or rather groups of viruses)—viruses that cause tumors in chickens and those capable of infecting bacteria—in arriving at the definition. Their role was paradoxical because at the time of their respective discoveries in the first decades of the 20th century, few people believed that they were in fact “viruses” as the term was understood then. Ultimately, however, it was an understanding of how these particular creatures functioned that led to the formulation of the modern concept of virus, as an entity different from other categories of being. 
Neeraja Sankaran is a historian of science, science writer and editor whose peripatetic academic life has paralleled her academic interests in in the recent or near-contemporary history of the life sciences and medicine. Within this broad terrain she has done research and published papers and books on the history of virus research, molecular biology, immunology, and origins of life research to name a few. She is the author of A Tale of Two Viruses (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2021), which forms the springboard for her talk today and Leeuwenhoek’s Legatees and Beijerinck’s Beneficiaries (University of Amsterdam Press, 2021) a co-authored history of the development of medical virology in the Netherlands.