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The doctrine of specific etiology


Modern medicine is often said to have originated with nineteenth century germ theory, which attributed diseases to bacterial contagions. The success of this theory is often associated with an underlying principle referred to as the “doctrine of specific etiology”. This doctrine refers to specificity at the level of disease causation or etiology. While the importance of this doctrine is frequently emphasized in the philosophical, historical, and medical literature, these sources lack a clear account of the types of specificity that it involves and why exactly they matter. This paper argues that nineteenth century germ theory involves two types of specificity at the level of etiology. One type receives significant attention in the literature, but its influence on modern medicine has been misunderstood. A second type is present in this model, but it has been completely overlooked in the extant literature. My analysis clarifies how these types of specificity led to a novel conception of etiology that continues to figure in medicine today.

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