Pasteur’s Bio-military Metaphors

How the language of war attached to medicine

Bruce Dickson


by John H. Lienhard — Engines of Our Ingenuity radio show transcript №1210 (1996). Transcript re-edited and slightly expanded by bd 2020.

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; blood was generated, then consumed in various tissues. Harvey showed blood moved in a closed loop and he called the 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,” not until Pasteur. Military language and metaphors were used for literal armies, not yet for diseases.

When Pasteur was young, disease was thought to be caused by an excess of irritation or an overabundance of vital force. 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 was compared to a “disease in the body politic.”

So military metaphors began to be used to describe germ behavior. Germs became “an invading army,” with “attackers” and “victims.” Sound familiar?

While the literal Prussians lay siege to the city of Paris, Pasteur was saying, in…