Victoria Lee

Associate Professor of History
Ohio University


Victoria Lee is associate professor of history at Ohio University. She is the author of The Arts of the Microbial World: Fermentation Science in Twentieth-Century Japan (Chicago, 2021), which won the 2023 International Convention of Asia Scholars Book Prize for the Best Book in the Humanities. She has held fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin and the Institut d’études avancées de Paris, and her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, NPR’s All Things Considered, and Mediapart.



"Charismatic Microbes and Coevolutionary History: Diversity and Domestication in Agroindustrial Microbiology"

In 2012, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) highlighted population growth and concomitant increases in consumption as the most significant threat facing the global environment and emphasized the challenges of achieving a “green economy.” In this context, industrialized societies have increasingly turned to the diversity of the microbial world to address sustainability problems, searching for microbes that can create protein alternatives to livestock products for human nutrition, make biofuels for energy, or fertilize soil in lieu of synthetic chemicals, to name a few. This chapter historicizes recent material practices that pitch microbes as tools of sustainability, especially in agroindustry. Focusing on the emergence of charismatic microbes (such as kōji molds, algae, or those involved in cheese production) in the twenty-first century, it locates them in a longer twentieth-century trajectory of state investment in agricultural fermentation. Fermentation research shaped the globalization of the conception of microbes as food and energy resources in the 1970s, which was supported by the internationalization of networks of culture collections to preserve microbial biodiversity. The science and counterculture of 1970s developments reveal another side to late twentieth-century microbiology in the applied realm—one that dealt with questions of biological function more than structure, biodiversity as much as standardization, and ecosystem thinking as well as the individual organism. They raise the question of what it means for some microbial practices to be longue durée, “domesticated” practices in the context of small-scale production, and they contribute to a perspective on coevolutionary history that pushes back against the earlier picture of a largely antagonistic relationship between humans and microbes through time.