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Bull Hist Med. 2006 Winter;80(4):733-61.

Babies and bacteria: phage typing, bacteriologists, and the birth of infection control.

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  • 1Unit for History and Philosophy of Science, University of Sydney, NSW, Australia.


During the 1950s, Staphylococcus aureus became a major source of hospital infections and death, particularly in neonates. This situation was further complicated by the fact that Staphylococcus quickly gained resistance to most antibiotics. Controlling these infections was a pressing concern for hospital workers, especially bacteriologists who tackled it through the use of a new epidemiologic tool: phage typing. This article argues that during the mid- to late 1950s a series of staphylococcal hospital and nursery epidemics united phage typers, brought international recognition to the usefulness of their technique, and, in the process, contributed to the establishment of the new field of infection control. Through the use of this new tool, phage typers established themselves as experts in infection control and, in some places, became essential members of newly formed infection-control committees. The nursery epidemics represent a particularly important test for phage typing and infection control, for this staphylococcal strain (80/81) was especially virulent and spread rapidly beyond the hospital to the wider community. The epidemiologic information provided by phage typers was vital for devising practical advice on how to control this deadly strain of Staphylococcus and also for transforming the role of the hospital bacteriologist from mere technician into infection-control expert.

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