18 September 2009

New York University - Monday the 21st of September

Gossip or Evidence? Interpreting the Strange Case of Kathleen Chevassut, James Purves Stewart, and the “Germ” of Multiple Sclerosis, 1927-1932

4:30, at 1 Washington Place (the Gallatin Building), room 801

In a 1931 letter addressed to physician Bernard Stewart of the Halley Stewart Trust, the neurologist Francis Walshe sarcastically observed that Stewart and the Trust he represented should soon learn to their regret that “feminine charm and inconsequence and a lighthearted disregard of accuracy are fatal endowments for one engaged in scientific research.” The source of Walshe’s consternation was a research project on the etiology of multiple sclerosis. A researcher, Kathleen Chevassut, working at the Westminster Hospital in London, had published findings in The Lancet claiming that she had isolated a causative microorganism in cultures. A neurologist in Chevassut’s hospital, James Purves Stewart, had asked her to produce vaccines against the “germ”. These he tested on his private patients and reported successful therapy in the same issue of The Lancet. Even, however, as the British press published news of these discoveries, it became clear to administrators, physicians, and scientists overseeing Chevassut’s research that the evidence for her findings was thin and that Stewart’s vaccine trials were premature.

Walshe only knew part of the story. Between the bits of gossip that the men circulated in their correspondence and the historical evidence, the actual events and circumstances of this episode become difficult to discern. In the few published histories on multiple sclerosis, authors tend to portray Chevassut in a poor light. Yet, it is difficult to ignore the significant issues of gender raised by Chevassut’s story. Furthermore, it is difficult to ignore the few regulatory limits placed on the "progress of experiment" in this period. Thus, while it is unlikely that Chevassut can emerge from this story as another Rosalind Franklin figure for the history of science, a more complicated telling of her story nevertheless sheds light on the complexities of making science and discovery in interwar Britain.

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