Peering into Hidden Worlds: The Past and Future of Legal Epidemiology Foreword
Volume 92, No. 4, Summer 2020
By Michelle M. Mello [PDF]

Antony van Leeuwenhoek grew lice in his socks. Curious to learn how many lice would appear, the man who would go on to be called the father of microbiology put two female lice into a clean sock, put it on, tied it tight at the top, and wore it around. After two weeks, he had enough of the two dozen lice that had hatched and feasted on his leg. He stripped off the sock and threw it into the street.

Van Leeuwenhoek’s experiment was disgusting on many levels, but it is emblematic of the thirst for knowledge and ingenuity that drove him during a scientific career that spanned more than fifty years. Born in the Netherlands in 1632, a basketmaker’s son, Van Leeuwenhoek never received formal scientific training. Nevertheless, he conducted wide-ranging scientific observations and experiments that paved the way for microbiology, microscopy, and bacteriology. Ultimately, his work led to the development of epidemiology and public health—to proof of the microbial theory of disease and subsequently the development of sanitation measures, vaccines, and antibiotic therapies. From there came the development of policy interventions to disseminate these measures—that is, public health law.

Van Leeuwenhoek and his itchy feet are thus distally but importantly connected to the field of legal epidemiology, or public health law research (PHLR). Further, his work and approach have striking parallels to PHLR—in observation and measurement, scientific testing, and the dissemination of discoveries. This Foreword pays tribute to what has been accomplished in the first decade of legal epidemiology and offers some thoughts about what is yet to come for the field.

Michelle M. Mello is Professor of Law, Stanford Law School, and Professor of Medicine, Center for Health Policy/Primary Care and Outcomes Research, Department of Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine.