Monday Series: A Disease with No Remedy IV

Dear Reader,

My apologies for the lack of posts and the lateness of this one. Apparently I’ve been so tired I failed to notice I didn’t schedule the Monday Series post properly.

As always, thank you for reading.


A fascinating perspective for the popularity of the hereditary theory of phthisis is given by historian Carlos López-Beltrán, who persuasively argued in a series of papers that heredity has a richer and more complex history, than normally granted by historians of biology and medicine. Heredity is a historically constructed concept which was first conceived in mid-nineteenth century France out of a reification of the adjective les maladies héréditaries.[1] López-Beltrán claims it is important not to mistake the concept of hereditary transmission with the concept of heredity: the latter is a noun referring to a structured set of meanings that outlined and constructed our modern biological concept, and emerged during the mid-nineteenth century in France, with the British adoption of hérédité occurring during the 1860s and 1870s;[2] and the former an ancient borrowing from the legal and social, loosely constructed with the metaphorical mirroring between the resemblance between parents and children, and the passing of properties and titles through generations.[3] This metaphorical image remained a stronghold in medical theories, as the Hippocratic-Galenic solid-humoral physiology provided a long-standing tradition of a pathological basis of hereditary framed on the theory of temperaments or constitutions. López-Beltrán explains that

in their conceptual quest to make sense of the idea of a hereditary disease, Hippocratic-Galenic physicians were forced, long before other naturalists, to focus on the genealogical patterns of character transmission.[4]

Obvious empirical facts such as the resemblances between parents and offspring, and familial patterns of disease or deformities, are collectively gathered under the metaphor. In doing so, the hereditary became a powerful explanation tool for naturalists, physiologists, and social reformers alike.[5] Furthermore, López-Beltrán argues that medical men’s preoccupation with the hereditary transmission of diseases and its physiological roots helped to develop a much more subtle and profound definition of hereditary cause.



[1] López-Beltrán, “Human Heredity: The Construction of a Scientific Domain,” PhD Thesis (King’s College London, 1992); “Forging Heredity: From Metaphor to Cause, a Reification Story,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science,25  (1994): 211-235; “‘Les maladies héréditaries’: Eighteenth-Century Disputes in France,” Revue d’historie des sciences 48 (1995): 307-50; “In the Cradle of Heredity: French Physicians and L’Héréditié Naturelle in Early 19th Century,” Journal of the History of Biology 37 (2004): 39-72; “The Medical Origins of Heredity,” in Heredity Produced: At the Crossroads of Biology, Politics, and Culture, 1500-1800. Eds. Stoffan Müller-wille and Hans-Jürg Rheinberger (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2007), 105-132.

[2] López-Beltrán, “Human Heredity,” Ch.1, “The Hereditary: From metaphor to cause. A reification story,” section 1.1, “From adjective to noun.”

[3] López-Beltrán, “Human Heredity,” section 1.1, “From adjective to noun.”

[4] López-Beltrán, “Human Heredity,” section 1.3, “1600-1800, Medical Men and the Hereditary. An Overview.”

[5] López-Beltrán, “Human Heredity,” “Introduction.”

Latest Comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s