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Annmarie Adams on The Gospel of Germs

17 December, 2020

This annotation is an extract from Annmarie Adams (2001) review ‘The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life, Historical Geography, Vol. 27, 2001, 106-108

Wash your hands before dinner. Cover your mouth when you cough. Store refrigerated leftovers in air-tight containers. Disinfect the bathroom following a sickness in the house. Avoid touching hotel bedspreads. Change the kitchen dishcloth daily and always run the dishwasher on the hottest possible setting. Never give a baby an unsterilised bottle. Open the bedroom window at night, even during the winter. These are among the hundreds of sanitary lessons I learned from my mother during the 1960s. But it was only in reading Nancy Tomes’ The Gospel of Germs, that the origins of this vast maternal wisdom, and the unquestioning manner in which it has been embraced by members of my generation, began to make sense.

Tomes’s book is a much-needed social and cultural history of the germ theory. While most historians of medicine have focused on the ‘great’ men (Pasteur, Koch, Tyndall, Lister, and others) who uncovered the existence of deadly microbes in the 1870s, Tomes, a public-health historian, looks at the impact of their discoveries on ordinary people, including women. In addition to the author’s attention to the gendered aspects of sanitary knowledge, the book is highly innovative in at least three other ways. Firstly, unlike many historians of medicine, Tomes does not believe that the germ theory changed the world overnight, but rather explains the theory’s acceptance in a series of distinctive stages. When and how did Americans accept the existence of germs? How did this new belief change their everyday lives? During the 1880s and 1890s, according to Tomes, the germ theory was closely allied to sanitary science. Americans became obsessed with ‘house diseases’ which they believed were caused by bad plumbing, poor ventilation, and lousy housekeeping. The period 1885-90 saw a new interconnectedness between people, objects, and events, making Americans fearful of a whole array of mass produced goods, public transportation, and commercial services. Between 1890 and 1920, many wealthy Americans changed their behaviour rather radically in order to avoid germs. They shaved their beards, wore short skirts, modernised their homes, insisted on separate communion cups, invested in expensive appliances, and even avoided handshaking and baby kissing. Secondly, Tomes has an extremely sophisticated understanding of the cultural context in which the germ theory emerged. In addition to her study of the revolutionary aspects of behavioural change caused by the theory, Tomes explains how it was actually overlaid on a set of practices already in place. The ‘very untidy set of ideas’ (p. 19) which comprised the germ theory, as explained in the book’s introduction, has been here rearranged into impeccable order by one of the field’s most erudite custodians. Thirdly, her religious analogies also serve Tomes well. The ‘gospel of germs’, as she explains in the book’s introduction, is the idea that microbes cause disease and can be avoided by certain protective behaviours. Throughout the book she refers to various groups as apostles and disciples. Two of the most powerful conduits for germ consciousness, the anti-tuberculosis crusade and the domestic science movement, were staged with near-religious fervour. Perhaps the clear outline of the book best illustrates the usefulness of the gospel metaphor. Tomes’ 10 beautifully written chapters are grouped into four parallel sections: ‘the Gospel Emergent’, ‘the Gospel Triumphant’, ‘the Gospel in Practice’, and ‘the Gospel in Retreat’.

Annmarie Adams on The Gospel of Germs

This annotation is an extract from Annmarie Adams (2001) review ‘The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life’, Historical Geography, Vol. 27, 2001, 106-108