Tag Archives: Lyme disease

Alternative narratives to the discovery of Lyme disease

Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, was first isolated in 1982 by Willy Burgdorfer, Ph.D., a zoologist and microbiologist at NIAID’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton, MT. The following is a brief history of this groundbreaking discovery.

So begins the description of the medical discovery of Lyme disease from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). An agency of the National Institutes of Health, NIAID conducts and supports basic and applied medical research on infectious and allergic diseases to increase scientific knowledge and advance methods of treatment and prevention. Set in the disciplines of microbiology and immunology, in recent years this work has focused on asthma, bioterrorism, and emerging infectious diseases. Lyme disease—in belonging to the latter category—has been a principal interest to the agency, the focus on which has been on understanding the mechanisms of the bacterial organism’s pathogenesis, its modes of transmission, and antibiotic therapy.

B. burgdorferi spirochete. Image courtesy of NUCEL International Integrative Medical Center

According to this state narrative, Lyme disease—a bacterial infection transmitted by Ixodes scapularis, the black-legged tick—was discovered in 1975 when a team of researchers led by Dr. Allen Steere investigated why unusually large numbers of children were being diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis in Lyme, Connecticut. In an early epidemiological report, Steere’s group examined the health status of 51 residents with the illness, characterized by ongoing swelling and pain in large joints. Published in 1977, the study argued the causative agent of the disease to be an unrecognized pathogen, possibly transmitted by an arthropod vector. The researchers found the disease to be highly complex, variable, and confusing, with some members of the cohort suffering from a short weeklong bout of illness while others experienced symptoms for months. When initial research found that 25% of residents with the illness developed an expanding red rash known in the medical literature as erythema migrans and that the majority of the towns’ cases were found in children living alongside wooded areas in the summer months, the team suggested the new disease could be related to the life cycle of ticks, particularly those of the Ixodes genus. With the assistance and expertise of Willy Burgdorfer, a medical entomologist specializing in tick-borne bacterial transmission, the researchers pinpointed the black-legged tick as the previously mentioned vector. Then, in 1982, Burgdorfer successfully isolated Borrelia burgdorferi from patients with the illness, proving that the spirochete bacterium caused what came to be known in medical and lay circles as Lyme disease.

Adult female I. scapularis

This account of medical detection is not confined to only the NIAID and other government research agencies—it circulates as the most common narrative in the biological and medical literature (Reik Jr 1991; Christen 1994; Reid 1998; Steere 2001; Knisley & Johnson 2004; Meyerhoff 2009; Sterle & Stanek 2009). As part of an institutional narrative of biological science’s importance, the account not only mentions the actions of and exchanges between epidemiologists, physicians, entomologists, and bacteriologists, but also frames these actors as the sole and vital components of the discovery, recording the event within a certain framework of what is and is not important. What’s at stake in recording the past within a particular perspective is not a rejection of scientific materiality, but rather an illustration of how what is ignored in our records echoes what continues to remain absent in contemporary discussion. Anthropologist Ilana Feldman follows this notion with the comment,  “There is no doubt that memories of the past say a great deal about people’s attitude in and towards the present.” Particular to the institutional memories created through state documents, Julie Taylor also notes the tensions implicit in certain modes of narrating the past. She writes that such documents inherently contain a politics of information, of including some parts of the past and excluding others: Continue reading