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Antibiotic development and usage, and antibiotic resistance in particular, are today considered global concerns, simultaneously mandating local and global perspectives and actions. Yet such global considerations have not always been part of antibiotic policy formation, and those who attempt to formulate a globally coordinated response to antibiotic resistance will need to confront a history of heterogeneous, often uncoordinated, and at times conflicting reform efforts, whose legacies remain apparent today. Historical analysis permits us to highlight such entrenched trends and processes, helping to frame contemporary efforts to improve access, conservation and innovation.
Even the plague, at present so humiliating and devastating to the Turks, seems to introduce a kind of mildness compared to the hideous radesyge. The first cuts the process short, and immediately delivers death one prey after another. The latter torments slowly, kills tardily, destroys unborn generations, and disfigures well formed bodies.
In June 1781 the physician Nicolaus Arbo, practising in the district of Strømsø in eastern Norway, received a letter from a chamber councillor in the neighbouring county of Telemark. The councillor requested that Arbo take compassion on two poor, single male peasants, whom he had met in a ‘most miserable and lamentable state’. Both of them had been discharged from the hospital as incurable, and they now dwelled in a tiny peasants' hut, entirely ostracized by the community, which feared infection. The councillor pitied these two unfortunates, and their ‘utterly deplorable fate’ had triggered his request to the physician. One of them, named Hans, was thirty-six years old. His health had begun deteriorating five years earlier, and the infirmity reappeared a few years later, with ulcers in the throat and under the nose. Eventually the whole lower part of the nasal cartilage and most of the upper lip were completely destroyed by the disease. He looked ‘extraordinarily repulsive’, but his health was otherwise good. The other, John, was thirty years old. His suffering had commenced three years earlier with ulcers in the throat and loss of the uvula. He had also contracted a disease of the chest, and his speech was severely impaired due to shortness of breath and increasing hoarseness. The colour of his face was pale and yellowish.
During the 1950s it became apparent that antibiotics could not conquer all microbes, and a series of tests were developed to assess the susceptibility of microbes to antibiotics. This article explores the development and standardization of one such testing procedure which became dominant in the Nordic region, and how the project eventually failed in the late 1970s. The standardization procedures amounted to a comprehensive scheme, standardizing not only the materials used, but also the methods and the interpretation of the results. Focusing on Sweden and Norway in particular, the article shows how this comprehensive standardization procedure accounted for several co-dependent factors and demanded collaboration within and across laboratories. Whereas literature on standardization has focused mostly on how facts and artefacts move within and across laboratories, I argue for the importance of also attending to regions and territories. More particularly, while arguing that the practices, ideals, and politics related to what have been called the “Nordic welfare state” were contributing to the design of the standardized procedure in the laboratory, I also argue that Scandinavia was drawn together as a unified region with and by these very same practices.