Germs

The old 'filth diseases' had been redefined by sanitarians during the course of the nineteenth century as 'zymotic' or 'pytho-genic' diseases that were thought to generate spontaneously from human excrement and general filth, spread through miasma. Prince Albert's death from 'bowel fever' (typhoid), supposedly caught from the antique sewer system at Windsor Castle, frighteningly emphasized the importance of good sanitary provision in the home. Plumbing, sewerage, and cesspits were earnestly discussed in the press, and sales of water closet sewer traps soared. Another domestic fear, 'ptomaine poisoning', was raised after chemists had isolated the natural toxic substances produced by bacterial degradation in the intestinal tract, a piece of science which immediately took root in the public mind in the form of 'autointoxication'—a cesspit inside the body: 'one cannot live over a cesspit in good health. How much more difficult to remain well if we carry our cesspit about inside us—especially when, as so often happens, the cesspit is unpleasantly full?' Constipation (and the bowel and laxative market) was to remain a popular health obsession well into the next century.50 But bacterial fermentation proved to be a fruitful lead towards germ theory, greatly helped by improved microscopes;but it was the effective practical and experimental work of Louis Pasteur, in particular, helped to popularize the new 'bacteriology' and led to much public debate in the 1880s about living 'vibrio', 'germs', and other microscopic zymotic particles. Germs were likened to tiny invisible seeds or ami-culae that flourished, flew, and wriggled everywhere, thriving on unwholesome matter or weakened human constitutions.

Pasteur's work on germs was soon extended by Robert Koch's experimental finding of specific disease bacilli, with the result that specific disease micro-organisms were being discovered at the phenomenal rate of one a year between 1879 and 1900.51

Germs in fact fitted very easily into older popular notions of contagium vivum; but Koch's discovery of specificity—germs as separate species with a life of their own—was more threatening to the older miasmatist sanitarians. Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, the author of Hygeia: A City of Health (1876), a mission statement for future macro-environmental hygienic town planning and architecture, was an old-fashioned sanitarian who placed all his faith in environmental cleansing, and considered germ-ridden laboratories immoral:

Let us drain our country on a plan of such uniformity, that every particle of pollution shall pass from our houses as it is produced there; let us cleanse our outward garments, our bodies, our food, our drink, and keep them cleansed; let us cleanse our minds as well as our garments, and keep them clean; let us isolate the contagious sick as they become contagious. Then all elaborate experiments for the prevention of disease will appear, as they are, mysterious additions to evil which ought not to exist, and which of themselves might re-introduce death into a deathless paradise.52

The specificity of germs attacked both humoralism and hygiene by denying spontaneous generation—no balancing of hot, cold, wet, or dry was required to deactivate or activate a specific contagion; nor (so it seemed) the observation of the seasons, ordering of temperaments, diet or exercise—indeed the whole paraphernalia of Hippocratic environmental and personal hygiene. The amoral biological determinism that germ theory implied (like the extreme forms of contemporary evolutionism) appeared irreligious and inhumane. For people like the anti-vivisectionist John Ruskin (who resigned his art professorship because the university appointed a professor of anatomy) and

Florence Nightingale (then designing her 'pavilion' hospitals of light and air), microbiological science had no place in the city of Hygieia. The anti-scientific research lobby in Britain was so strong that the first British microbiological research laboratory in the 1890s was called the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine: the word 'research' was specifically kept out of the name to avoid a backlash from anti-vivisection groups.53 But by then the public's belief in the existence of 'germs' was strong and unstoppable, and mostly far more concerned with the microscopic world than the transcendental one.

Germs were now the invisible enemy, fought at every turn. Germ theory reinforced every single lesson of the old gospel of cleanliness, but the 'eternal vigilance' now required made house-cleansing a heavy burden of responsibility;its neglect was akin to murder. In the new procedures of 'domestic science' the basic old routines of the 'home hospital' were now to be applied to every room, but especially to kitchens, water closets, and bedrooms. There was an emphasis on the old axis of wet-dry purification. Strong light and continual fresh air dried up and 'cleaned' dark and dank cellars, rooms, and privies; antiseptic washes for floors and all surfaces mopped up lurking germs. Water sources must be pure, or if necessary purified, and all plumbing fixtures and fittings regularly inspected; for greater safety, plain white porcelain and tiling was now specified for super-cleanliness in and around the water closet, bathing, and food preparation areas. Laundry had to have ten minutes of boiling to kill germs (and vegetables only slightly less). Every kitchen saucepan and utensil had to be burnished and sterilized, every work surface cleaned off and disinfected daily, food cooled and covered with cloths to prevent germs from settling and breeding; new kitchen food refrigerators were found necessary in the hotter American climate. Since bacilli were also now known to live on in dry form, household dust was considered especially lethal. Thick curtains, wallpaper, heavy carpeting, ornate furniture, and knick-knacks were discouraged;and the use of damp cloths and mops were urged instead of sweeping and dusting—or even better, the new vacuum cleaner, for those who could afford it. Even dress length was affected, after domestic science reformers criticized long hems that brushed in the dirt and dust, bringing potential disease from the street directly into the home.

Complete isolation, or 'asepsis'—the bodily procedures that soon put germ-conscious surgical staff into gloves, masks, and gowns—was obviously not feasible for daily life; but nonetheless certain procedures closely resembled the ancient purity rules. Contact with any other person's body was dangerous. Kissing and hugging, even among members of the family, could be a risk, with strangers even more so; public handshaking was perilous (women were advised to wear gloves), and public coughing and spitting even worse (carrying a clean handkerchief was essential). Household food had to come from 'clean' retailers and shopworkers (hygienically produced 'branded' goods were safest) and preferably clean-wrapped in front of your eyes (transparent cellophane soon met this need). The whole suspect outer world—neatly summed up as 'flies, fingers, food'—obviously included the old insect pests such as fleas, the bedbug, nits, and body lice. Flies were a new fear that had been raised by agricultural science and the experience of fighting mosquitoes;they were now known to leave their invisible sticky footprints everywhere, randomly, and the life cycle of the fly was widely discussed in the press. The 'house-fly danger' campaign led to much covering of food and drink with beaded lace doilies, muslin over the baby's perambulator, fly screens, and campaigns against street refuse, manure heaps, and horse droppings. A new deluge of toxic sprays, gases, waters, and powders was directed at all these old and new insect enemies, including paraffin, arsenic, and lead compounds, as well as the traditional disinfectants (vinegar, soap, lime, derris dust).54

Levels of pollution fear among the general public must have been raised exceptionally high in those early days, even though an outpouring of domestic technical innovation was providing new solutions and familiarity gradually softened the new scientific routines. Bacteriology could increasingly identify and thus help prevent disease causation;but specific chemical therapeutics ('magic bullets') only arrived halfway through the next century, when the subsequent development of immunology—with its idea of the 'fighting body'—also reduced anxiety and somewhat restored the human status quo. But scientific uncertainty left a good deal of room for divided opinion, perhaps even for a divided mind: you could be sanguine and optimistic one day, or for some reason fearful and pessimistic the next. Hygienic health reform fragmented and intensified, but the main body of sanitarians took the common-sense, broadly optimistic approach and threw themselves into practical action. The civic hygiene and domestic science reformers in Britain and particularly North America operated through an avalanche of national and local committees, mass meetings, posters, tracts, books, magazines, newspapers, and advertising campaigns, and finally succeeded in changing domestic habits and manners and raising levels of domestic cleanliness to a degree undreamt of, in a remarkably short time (at least among urban populations—rural populations were not so accessible). A mass civic campaign against tuberculosis at the turn of the century hammered the message home.55

The pessimists were equally active, and just as desperate. There was still a large rump of physical puritan reformers campaigning hard against all the depravities of modern civilization, and the array of purity crusaders in Britain and America that arose during the last two decades of the century (and carried on well into the next century) was truly formidable. The ethics of personal hygiene and purity were stretched to the limit by (among others) birth control and eugenic 'social hygiene' enthusiasts, sexual purity campaigners against public prostitution and private 'onanism' (masturbation), the anti-science lobby of the anti-vaccination, anti-vivisection, and animal welfare movements, and the purest of the pure, the extreme vegetarians who refused any contact with animal matter (the vegans), or to inflict any pain on living things (the fruitarians). In Britain a joint alliance, the Humanitarian League, gave them a unified public platform in 1890.56 But empiric healers such as herbalists, homoeopaths, osteopaths, spiritualists, and hydropaths were now truly locked out of modern science—satirized as dogmatic medical 'cults', under fire from medical licensing authorities, and completely outpaced by medical technology and new standards of rigorous scientific training in the medical colleges. Some awareness of the isolated position of the old medical democrats can be seen in the so-called Eclectic Movement at the end of the century, which united all their skills in a brand-new identity eventually called Naturopathy. Given the widespread popularity of the drug-free nature cure, one of the more emotional, or instinctive, public reactions to extreme materialism was evidently self-purification, and another bout of rugged, rural, primitivism.

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