Article ID: CBB156717395

Houseflies and Fungi: The Promise of an Early Twentieth-Century Biotechnology (2020)


Despite a surge of recent scholarship on the long and broad history of biotechnology, the use of biological controls such as fungal and insect vectors does not immediately spring to mind when considering early attempts to engineer life. Yet the early twentieth century saw an ambitious attempt to artificially cultivate and disseminate the parasitic Empusa muscae fungus to destroy the housefly (Musca domestica). This paper argues that E. muscae represented an early twentieth-century disconnect between the promised hopes of biological control and the problematic reality of its use. During the late nineteenth century, bacteriological techniques established that the housefly spread disease, while biological controls were trialled against locusts and other insects in North America and South Africa. In 1912, Edgar Hesse successfully cultivated E. muscae at the Working Men's College in London. His ambition to use the fungus to exterminate the housefly was short-lived, thwarted by technical difficulties and the realization that the fungus also carried harmful pathogens. Although the use of E. muscae ultimately proved a failure, its history offers us a glimpse of a little-known, yet surprisingly familiar, world of biotechnological aspiration and controversy.

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Authors & Contributors
Di, Lu
Sasges, Gerard
Nelson, Derek Lee
Brad Bolman
Eather, Warwick
Cottle, Drew
Environmental History
British Journal for the History of Science
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
Scientia Canadensis: Journal of the History of Canadian Science, Technology, and Medicine
Osiris: A Research Journal Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
Isis: International Review Devoted to the History of Science and Its Cultural Influences
Biological pest control
Pesticides; insecticides
Insect control
Jōkichi Takamine
Tung, Chung-shu
Saccardo, Pier Andrea
Howard, Albert, Sir
Carson, Rachel Louise
Calmette, Albert
Time Periods
20th century, early
19th century
20th century, late
18th century
United States
Great Britain
Perth (Western Australia)
Institut Pasteur, Paris

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