The Invisible War: A Brief History




The Invisible War is an illustrated science-history themed graphic novel exploring parallel experiences during WWI. The story takes place on two different physical scales; the macro-scale, from the point of view of a Victorian nurse supporting troops in the trenches of the Western Front, and simultaneously on the micro-level, from the point of view of the gut microbes which fight to keep her body alive when she contracts dysentery. The story is fictional, based on scientific and historical facts. The Invisible War is a compelling educational resource, combining a fascinating scientific narrative with a human experience of a nurse from Victoria. A digital version of the graphic novel, plus accompanying teaching resources are now freely available to all Australian school teachers through Scootle or via the dedicated book website.


Recent discoveries by an Australian microbiologist (Dr. Jeremy Barr) have demonstrated the amazing symbiosis between humans and the bacterial viruses (bacteriophages) living inside the mucus made in our mouth, nose, gut, and more. Described widely as a ‘second immune system’, this symbiotic relationship is our first line of defence against infection by disease-causing bacteria. During WWI, dysentery (caused by the Shiga/Shigella bacterium) was responsible for the deaths of huge numbers of Australian soldiers in the trenches. The goal of The Invisible War was to create a work that is visually engaging and appealing to a teenage audience without significant prior knowledge of the history of war or study of disease. Our aim was to generate a new understanding of the toll of war, the extreme physical conditions endured by young men and women in WWI, and an appreciation for resilience of communities who work together, both on a micro and macro level.


The project received developmental funding from the Victorian Government ANZAC Centenary Major Grants Program, Creative Victoria and the Australia Council for the Arts for the research and production of this graphic novel. The interdisciplinary comprises of visual artists and scientists, a writer, historian and graphic designer. Nearly 200 school students from around Melbourne and regional Victoria were consulted in the development of The Invisible War. Finally, the printed version was funded through a Pozible crowdfunding campaign, with match co-funding from Creative Partnerships Australia.


The project was coordinated by Melbourne-based, art-science collective Scale Free Network (SFN), comprising of microbial ecologist and science communicator, Dr. Gregory Crocetti and visual artist Briony Barr. Story writer Ailsa Wild has a history of publishing and performing work for young people. Illustrator Ben Hutchings has been creating comics for over 20 years and is co-founder of Australia's first cartoonists' studio, Squishface Comic Studio. Science advisor and microbiologist, Dr. Jeremy Barr is currently pioneering new research discoveries into the role viruses play in protecting humans from infection from pathogenic bacteria such as Shigella dysenteriae (which caused most cases of dysentery in WWI). We consulted with the brilliant researchers Prof. Philippe Sansonetti, Dr. Kat Holt, Dr. Laurent Debarbieux and Dr Francois-Xavier Weill, who all provided invaluable guidance around Shigella bacteria and the bacteriophages which infect them. We also received support from the History Teachers Association of Victoria.