A box, a trough, and marbles: How the Reed-Frost epidemic theory shaped epidemiological reasoning in the 20th century

Lukas Engelmann*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

The article takes the renewed popularity and interest in epidemiological modelling for Covid-19 as a point of departure to ask how modelling has historically shaped epidemiological reasoning. The focus lies on a particular model, developed in the late 1920s through a collaboration of the former field-epidemiologists and medical officer, Wade Hampton Frost, and the biostatistician and population ecologist Lowell Reed. Other than former approaches to epidemic theory in mathematical formula, the Reed-Frost epidemic theory was materialised in a simple mechanical analogue: a box with coloured marbles and a wooden trough. The article reconstructs how the introduction of this mechanical model has reshaped epidemiological reasoning by shifting the field from purely descriptive to analytical practices. It was not incidental that the history of this model coincided with the foundation of epidemiology as an academic discipline, as it valorised and institutionalised new theoretical contributions to the field. Through its versatility, the model shifted the field’s focus from mono-causal explanations informed by bacteriology, eugenics or sanitary perspectives towards the systematic consideration of epidemics as a set of interdependent and dynamic variables.
Original languageEnglish
Article number105
Pages (from-to)1-24
Number of pages24
JournalHistory and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Volume43
Issue number3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 30 Aug 2021

Keywords

  • epidemiology
  • epidemic theory
  • modelling
  • history of science
  • Covid-19
  • Reed-Frost epidemic theory

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