Research Seminar Reminder

Tuesday 17 February 2009: Mr Daniel Becker (Durham University):
‘”She is ill! She must be!”: William M. Ord and Myxoedema’
5.30pm, Durham University, Queen’s Campus, Stockton-on-Tees, Wolfson
Research Institute, Seminar Room

For further information, please visit our webpage at or contact the Centre’s
Administrator/Outreach Officer, Katherine Smith,

[dot] smith [at] durham [dot] ac [dot] uk

For directions to Queen’s Campus, Stockton, please visit our webpage at


Over the last few years the concept of ‘disease causation’ has received
increased attention from historians of medicine and philosophers alike.
However, the usual suspect, the ‘bacterial hypothesis’ of Robert Koch
(1843 – 1910) and Louis Pasteur (1822 – 1895) still seems to be the
focus of most of these research efforts. The often-told story goes that
with the rise of bacteriology a new, and in many ways quite reductive,
mode of looking at the causes for diseases was established, which far
outlived its ‘founding fathers’. The new focal points were universal and
necessary causes for disease, as outlined by Koch in numerous
publications. Thus, bacteriology and the new conception of diseases as
being related to such universal and necessary causes gradually succeeded
the older pathological-anatomical one. In my paper, I will contest the
interpretation that universal necessary causes of diseases, as well as
the search for these causes, pervaded the late nineteenth-century
medical community. By focusing on one disease, Myxoedema, I will show
that everyday medical thought as well as low-profile medical research
were not influenced by this new disease concept to the extend suggested
by the more recent literature. Clinicians, admittedly a very
heterogeneous group, did not readily adopt the new etiology and its
theoretical implications for several reasons, conceptual as well as
practical. The more recent literature addressing changes in etiological
thought focuses on laboratory medicine and thus misses questions of
applicability and practicality that deeply concerned the general medical
practitioner. I will argue that far too much attention is being paid to
the philosophical and logical interpretations and proofs for the new
disease concept which eludes the structural aspects of key components of
late nineteenth-century clinical medicine.
To provide a concise frame of reference, I will focus on one key actor
in the introduction of Myxoedema, William Miller Ord (1834-1902).

Centre for the History of Medicine and Disease
Wolfson Research Institute
Durham University
Queen’s Campus
University Boulevard
Stockton on Tees
TS17 6BH
Tel: + 44 (0)191 3340700
Email: [email protected]