Call for Papers: Contagion and Calculus. Histories of modelling epidemics.


Deadline extended to 10th March 2022. 

Workshop at the University of Edinburgh, 16 & 17 June 2022.

Organised by the ERC-funded project The Epidemy, A History of Epidemiological Reasoning ( )

Models have guided the Covid-19 pandemic response with unprecedented authority. While many predictions over the last 20 months have been subject to heated controversy, modelling seemingly has no credible challengers in the guidance of pandemic politics. But the success story of infectious disease modelling far exceeds the horizon of the ongoing pandemic and is deeply interwoven with central  aspects of the history of science and medicine across the twentieth century. Why has understanding the dynamics of epidemics assumed primacy over the comprehensive precision of empirical inputs? How has mathematical modelling of infectious diseases moved to the forefront of public health expertise to become a globally trusted resource? Under what circumstances have the theoretical claims made with models eclipsed other ways of epidemiological knowing? Finally, how and to what extent has infectious disease modelling impacted on other fields and disciplines? With these guiding questions the workshop aims to assemble new historical research to explore and clarify the ascent of infectious disease modelling in the twentieth century – within and beyond epidemiology

Lowell Reed pouring marbles into a trough as part of a mechanical epidemic model
Still from “The Johns Hopkins Science Review” about the Reed-Frost epidemic theory from 1951. (Source)

The genesis of infectious disease modelling is difficult to reconstruct. Epidemiological textbooks propose early beginnings in the work of a few British epidemiologists over the first three decades of the twentieth century, but still too little is known about the specific social, political and epistemological contexts within which modeling began to make sense. The historical geography of infectious disease modelling is impoverished, missing engagement with imperial histories and colonial governance as a crucial scene of invention, experimentation and testing.  Much existing scholarship lacks discussion of infectious disease modelling beyond the Anglo-American realm and maintains significant chronological gaps. The story of the ascent of the field of infectious disease modelling too often rushes from the age of vital statistics to the popular Anderson/May paper on infectious diseases in population biology in 1979. What about the fate of modelling during World War Two, in the post-war period, in the age of chronic conditions, during the emergence of novel global health institutions, international vaccination campaigns, training programs in epidemiological intelligence, cybernetics and in the surge of social and socialist medicine?

A persistently narrow and technical focus might be responsible for critical omissions in this history of modelling.  It is often overlooked, that much of the theoretical and formal innovation in this field has never been just about infectious diseases. Since Ronald Ross’ “theory of happenings” (1911), the combination of “calculus and contagion”(Hudson 1927) was supposed to expand epidemiological reasoning beyond the transmissibility of pathogens and towards the spread of non-communicable diseases, but also behaviours, products, beliefs, ideas and anything that spreads. Our workshop welcomes contributions that trace the mobility of models and modelling theories between epidemiology and economics, sociology, mathematics, the information sciences, and which revisit the relations between the social sciences and epidemiological variants of social physics, which might, say, expand our understanding of the intersections of modelling with marketing, nudge-units and the behavioural science of social contagion.

The workshop will be held in Edinburgh in person (if possible), and costs for accommodation and traveling will be covered for all contributors. Abstracts should speak clearly to the workshop questions as outlined above and should not exceed 250 words. Please include your name, affiliation and up to 5 keywords with your submission. The deadline is the 28th of February, 10th of March 2022, and a preliminary program will be published in March. Proceedings of the workshop will be submitted to a relevant journal in the history of science and medicine to form a special issue.

Please get in touch with any questions: