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A Simple Plan

E.L. Trudeau, the Rabbit Island Experiment, and Tuberculosis Treatment

By Karen M. Aguirre

A Simple Plan



This case study introduces students to Dr. E.L. Trudeau, who performed a seminal early experiment validating the germ theory of infection. Part I introduces Trudeau's Rabbit Island experiment, which is simple and easy for beginning or non-major students of biology or history of science to understand. Its results provided rational bases for the tuberculosis sanatorium movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. In Part I, students learn about tuberculosis and some of the rudiments of experimental design and graphic analysis.  Part II focuses on tuberculosis in its social context. Students explain a curve on a graph that shows the rise of tuberculosis mortality from the start of the industrial revolution and the great mass movement to the cities. The curve begins to abate as public sanitation and living conditions improve with the development of a middle class, and finally drops precipitously in the 1950s with the advent of effective anti-Mycobacterium tuberculosis antibiotics. Students also learn about the recent resurgence of tuberculosis with the AIDS epidemic, the emergence of drug-resistant strains, and the peculiar contribution of mass incarceration to the global crisis.  The case study was developed for non-major biology students; it could also be used with freshman biology majors as well as with history of science students.


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  • Describe the history of tuberculosis and its importance in global health.
  • Discover that ideas that we take for granted, like the "germ theory of infection," were not always so well-subscribed.
  • Analyze experimental data presented in a survival graph.
  • Identify dependent and independent variables in a simple experiment.
  • Select a single independent variable, and design an experiment within a defined experimental system.
  • Construct survival curves.
  • Critique experimental designs.
  • Think of ways to put scientific information to use in formulation of public policy.
  • Explain the history of tuberculosis in its social context.
  • Draw parallels between historical experimental data and current real world data related to incarceration and tuberculosis.
  • Dissect a complex social problem into some of its individual causative components, and consider how these components might be addressed.


Tuberculosis; consumption; infectious disease; Mycobacterium tuberculosis; MTb; multiple-drug resistance; MDR-TB; acquired immunodeficiency syndrome; AIDS; opportunistic pathogens; germ theory; E.L. Trudeau; Robert Koch


Subject Headings

Biology (General)
Medicine (General)
Public Health
Science (General)


High school, Undergraduate lower division






History of science, Scientific method, Social issues, Social justice issues






Analysis (Issues), Directed, Interrupted, Student Presentations



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