Dr Claas Kirchhelle

Featured Publication

Pyrrhic Progress: The History of Antibiotics in Anglo-American Food Production

Pyrrhic Progress analyses over half a century of antibiotic use, regulation, and resistance in US and British food production. Mass-introduced after 1945, antibiotics helped revolutionize post-war agriculture. Food producers used antibiotics to prevent and treat disease, protect plants, preserve food, and promote animals’ growth. Many soon became dependent on routine antibiotic use to sustain and increase production. The resulting growth of antibiotic infrastructures came at a price. Critics blamed antibiotics for leaving dangerous residues in food, enabling bad animal welfare, and selecting for antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in bacteria, which could no longer be treated with antibiotics. Pyrrhic Progress reconstructs the complicated negotiations that accompanied this process of risk prioritization between consumers, farmers, and regulators on both sides of the Atlantic. Unsurprisingly, solutions differed: while Europeans implemented precautionary antibiotic restrictions to curb AMR, consumer concerns and cost-benefit assessments made US regulators focus on curbing drug residues in food. The result was a growing divergence of antibiotic stewardship and a rise of AMR. Kirchhelle’s comprehensive analysis of evolving non-human antibiotic use and the historical complexities of antibiotic stewardship provides important insights for current debates on the global burden of AMR


​Research interests:

  • History of antibiotic use, resistance, and regulation
  • Public health and epidemiology
  • Bacteriophage and phage-typing

My research interests include environmental history, history of medicine, science and technology studies, and public health policy. In addition to my current research on the history of antibiotic development and policy, I have grown interested in the technologies underpinning modern understandings of bacterial resistance, our microbial surroundings, and our own microbiome. I am particularly interested in the role that a group of viruses called bacteriophages and a technology called phage-typing played in changing 20th century epidemiology, infection control, and bacterial taxonomy.

I am a tutor for Oxford’s General History XIV Paper on 20th century Global History and teach the Further Subject 22 Authority of Nature on the history of eugenics, heredity and crime since 1800.


  • Make it new: reformism and British public health

  • Setting the standard: multidisciplinary hallmarks for structural, equitable and tracked antibiotic policy.

  • Governing the Global Antimicrobial Commons: Introduction to Special Issue.

  • Making Use of Existing International Legal Mechanisms to Manage the Global Antimicrobial Commons: Identifying Legal Hooks and Institutional Mandates.

  • (Inter)nationalising the antibiotic research and development pipeline.

  • Setting the agenda for social science research on the human microbiome

  • Exploring Models for an International Legal Agreement on the Global Antimicrobial Commons: Lessons from Climate Agreements.

  • Pyrrhic Progress

  • A roadmap for sustainably governing the global antimicrobial commons

  • The forgotten typers: The rise and fall of Weimar bacteriophage-typing (1921–1935)


I currently teach:


  General History XIV - The Global Twentieth Century, 1930-2003
  Further Subject 22 - Authority of Nature: Race, Heredity, and Crime, 1800-1940



Methods and Themes in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology

In the Media


Featured on “Surprisingly Brilliant” Podcast on Mary Mallon/ Typhoid Mary

Claas Kirchhelle and Samantha Vanderslott, Challenging Circumstances: we need international guidelines for human infection studies - Medium (11 June 2020)

Winner of Bristol Science Film Festival 2020 Professional Science Fact Film Prize (7 June 2020) 

COVID-19: Insights from history (with Prof Mark Harrison) (19 May 2020)

Article with Adam Roberts and Andrew Singer on COVID and Antibiotic Resistance in Scientific American (1 April 2020)

COVID-19: Insights from history (with Prof Mark Harrison) (24 March 2020)

Commentary on marketing prospects for the new antibiotic Corbomycin in the Daily Mail (13 February 2020)

Featured on BBC Radio 4 “Inside Science” (30 January 2020)

Featured on BBC World Service “Health Check” (29 January 2020)

Interviewed on BBC One South regarding Alice in Typhoidland  project (24 January 2020)

Featured on University of Oxford's Medium: How Oxford’s most famous character is helping to drag typhoid out of the rabbit-hole (20 January 2020)


Interviewed by Annita McVeigh on BBC 2/BBC News Channel regarding the history of typhoid control and the rollout of new typhoid conjugate vaccines (5 December, 2019)

Big Pharma has failed: the antibiotic pipeline needs to be taken under public ownership, The Conversation (18 November 2019)

The AMR Studio Episode 13: Review of Progress on Antimicrobial Resistance

Typhoid - From Past to Future; Overview of attention for article published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, October 2019

Decades neglecting an ancient disease has triggered a health emergency around the world, The Conversation (30 October 2019)

Research on new public solutions for antibiotic research & development (F1000, 2019) discussed by Maryn McKenna in Wired 'The Radical Plan to Change How Antibiotics Get Developed' (May, 2019).

The challenge of antimicrobial resistance: What economics can contribute
Singer, Andrew; Kirchhelle, Claas; Roberts, Adam: The need to explore the economics of (inter)nationalising the antibiotic pipeline. In: Science Eletters - (29 April 2019) 


Patchwork regulation won’t stop antimicrobial resistance
Published in Nature


Jeremy Cherfas’ ‘Eat This’ series
Antibiotics and Agriculture: tackling the problem of antibiotic resistance at (one) source

Scientific Advisor for Al Smith’s “Dangerous Visions – Culture” a dystopian 45-minute BBC Radio 4 drama on bacterial resistance

Co-curator "Back from the Dead" - an exhibition on the history of penicillin and penicillin resistance
Museum of the History of Science (November 2016-May 2017)
Winner of the Vice Chancellor’s Public Engagement with Research Projects Award, 2017
Oxford Martin School & Museum of the History of Science: Demystifying antibiotics

BBC Radio 4 Experimental Histories Workshop on antibiotic resistance
Collaboration with playwrights for a radio drama focusing on the dangers of bacterial resistance.
Wellcome Trust, London

Yellow Magic Exhibition - a one-day exhibition for children on the Oxford Group's development of penicillin.
Museum of the History of Science