Claas Kirchhelle

Lecturer/Assistant Professor
University College Dublin


Claas Kirchelle is a historian of 'bugs and drugs'. Based at University College Dublin, Kirchelle's research the history of microbial environments, infectious disease, and the development, marketing, and regulation of antibiotics and vaccines. Since completing his DPhil at the University of Oxford in 2015, Kirchelle has authored three books (see below) on the history of antibiotics in food production (Pyrrhic Progress, 2020), animal welfare, science, and activism (Bearing Witness, 2021), and typhoid control (Typhoid, 2022). Policy and Public Engagement are an important part of his work. His research has informed multiple national and international policy reviews on antimicrobial resistance (AMR), laboratory based public health surveillance, and adverse effect compensation. Kirchelle's work has been cited in high-level international reports on AMR and he is the author of an expert report on UK public health systems and pandemic preparedness for the UK COVID-19 Inquiry. Kirchelle has also co-curated two multi award-winning exhibition projects on the history of penicillin (Back from the Dead) and typhoid (Typhoidland). He has also advised on radio and theatre plays includiing (Dangerous Visions: Culture, BBC Radio 4), published in international print media, featured in major TV documentaries (Coronavirus Explained, Netflix), and given interviews for multiple national and international broadcasters. Kirchelle holds honorary fellowships at the Oxford Vaccine Group and is an elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.



"Culture, Codes, Communities: Connecting the International History of Microbiology and Microbial Culture Collections (1890-2010)"
with Frédéric Vagneron (Université de Strasbourg)

Since ca. 1900, microbial culture collections have served as obligatory passage and anchoring points for the global production, circulation, and preservation of microbiological knowledge, bioindustrial innovation and property, and microbial heritage. University researchers, public health workers, and biomedical entrepreneurs rely on the genetic and cellular stability of deposited reference strains and type cultures to assess new health threats, calibrate diagnostics and therapies, and make claims for innovation. Maintaining and growing these collections is subject to considerable biological and social challenges. Collecting, preserving, and studying the hundreds of thousands of frozen, lyophilised, or cultured microbial organisms requires elaborate sampling networks and sophisticated technical infrastructures. Resulting collections’ shape is influenced not just by scientific considerations but by the geopolitical and economic interests of the organisations and states maintaining them. It is therefore unsurprising that the geographic distribution of collections and the circulation of strains mirrors international power and financial imbalances, nor that their contents and access to collections are often highly selective. Culture, Codes, Communities reconstructs the rise, evolution, and power dynamics of this global network of culture collections. It does so by focusing on institutional case studies including the British National Collection of Type Cultures (NCTC), the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC), the International Center for Information on and the Distribution of Type-Cultures in Lausanne, and the World Federation of Culture Collections (WFCC). The paper shows that geopolitics were embedded in the biological composition and political mission of culture collections from the very beginning. It also shows how new intellectual property regimes and microbiological technologies like phage-typing or genomic sequencing repeatedly shifted collections’ mission and the networks tying them together: whereas early collections primarily served as national repositories of ‘useful’ microbes and reference strains, the post-war period saw competing visions of  internationalisation lead to the rise and fall of the internationalist Lausanne collection and the formalisation of international exchange and referencing with the foundation of the WFCC in 1970. Technologically, the decades after 1970 saw an increasing focus on ‘mining’ collections’ genetic codes for biotechnological applications and as necessary archives for intellectual property, while the decades after the passage of the 1992 UN declaration on biological diversity saw an increasing focus on collections’ role in preserving the planet’s past and current microbial heritage. The paper ends by challenging the common view of culture collections as neutral representations of the world and proposes a new form of biohistorical Quellenkritik when using their contents.