William C Summers MD, PhD

Professor of Therapeutic Radiology, in the History of Medicine and of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry; Lecturer in History

Research Interests

History of molecular biology; Development of target theory; History of Manchurian Plague, 1910-1911

Current Projects

Study of the geopolitics of disease using the Manchurian Plague of 1910-1911 as a case study; History of the American Phage Group; Integration of history and philosophy in the study and teaching of science as a process.


Research Summary

An essential aspect of science is an understanding of the ontological and epistemological aspects of scientific knowledge. This understanding can often be approached through historical analysis and reflections on science. My research is focused on molecular biology as a typical modern scientific endeavor and on cross cultural and cross national aspects of science. For example, the early history of molecular biology is embedded in the work of physicists who applied concepts from physics to biological systems. One major aspect of this early work was the development of the target theory. The detailed history of the origins of the target theory has been reconstructed from the published literature and from archival material. This material will form some of the background against which the larger history of molecular biology will be placed. The overall goal of this project is to develop a detailed and nuanced history of the “Phage Group” and its role in the origins of the field of molecular biology.

Extensive Research Description

History of Molecular Biology
The early history of molecular biology is embedded in the work of physicists who applied concepts from physics to biological systems. One major aspect of this early work was the development of the target theory. The detailed history of the origins of the target theory has been reconstructed from the published literature and from archival material. The next phase of this project will examine the formation and influences of the American Phage Group. This material will form some of the background against which the larger history of molecular biology will be placed.

History of the Manchurian Plague, 1910-1911

Beginning in October 1910, a major epidemic of pneumonic plague swept through Manchuria and by the spring of 1911 had killed between 45,000-60,000 people. The plague and its aftermath were to play an important role in the geopolitical events leading up to the Japanese takeover of Manchuria and complex causes of World War II. The concentrated force of this epidemic, its near 100 percent mortality rate, and its occurrence in a region of international competition and diplomatic struggle all contributed to the importance and interest in the Manchurian plague. The "Manchurian Question" was of immense interest in the United States: America had just enjoyed its first taste of successful international leadership upon Roosevelt's brokering the peace treaty of 1905 that ended the Russo-Japanese war over territorial rights in Manchuria. Russia, on the other hand was intent on retaining what she could of her centuries-old foothold in east Asia. Japan, modernizing after the Meiji restoration in 1868, was experiencing international ambitions and expansionism in Korea and Manchuria, in its own version of "manifest destiny." China, under the yoke of war reparations owed to both the Western Powers and to Japan as the result of the ill- fated Boxer Rebellion in 1895, was struggling with its first efforts at modernization while still governed by the decaying, and increasingly ineffective Qing dynasty. This project aims to elucidate the multiple uses which was made of the plague to exhibit the importance of epidemic disease in geopolitics.


Selected Publications

  • Summers, W.C. (2010). Physics and Genes: Einstein to Delbrück. In Sloan, Philip (ed.) The Three Man Paper. Univ of Chicago Press, [in press]
  • Schaechter, M., Summers, W.C., et al. eds. (2009). Encyclopedia of Microbiology, Third Edition. New York and London: Elsevier. Six volumes.
  • Summers, W.C. (2007). Antibiotic Resistance: A Historical Introduction. In: Lewis, K., Salyers, A.A., Taber, H.W., and Wax, R.G (eds) Bacterial Resistance to Antimicrobials: Mechanisms, Genetics, Medical Practice, and Public Health, Second Ed.. New York: Marcel Dekker.
  • Summers, W.C. (2007). Bacteriophage T7. In: Acheson, N., Ed. Fundamentals of Molecular Virology, New York: J. Wiley & Sons.
  • Summers, W.C. (2006). Introduction to bacteriophages, history of phage research and phage therapy. In: Bacteriophages and Bacterial Pathogens, M. Waldor, D. Friedman, and S. Adhya, eds. ASM Press.
  • Summers, W.C., ed. 2006. F.L. Holmes. Reconceiving the gene: Seymour Benzer's adventures in phage genetics. Yale Univ. Press.
  • Summers, W.C. (2006). Phage and the early development of molecular biology. In: Calendar, R., ed. The Bacteriophages. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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