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Week 8: Medicine in the West: The Rise of Science

Lecturer: Roberta Bivins

In the second half of the nineteenth century, a new way of understanding health and disease emerged from the new research institutes and laboratories of Western Europe and North America: prompted by the ‘discovery’ of bacteria, theories of disease causation began to shift from ‘dirt’ to ‘germs’. This change transformed thinking about health and disease, and profoundly reshaped daily life in Europe, North America, and (gradually) the rest of the world. A century later, yet anoth model of disease etiology entered the public sphere when the ‘gene’ joined the germ as a source of health and illness. This lecture will examine the origins and impacts of ‘the gospel of germs’ and ‘geneticisation’ on medical practice, individual behaviour and the medical state. We will ask what it means to think of disease as caused by germs, or by genes. Where, in each model, does the threat to health come from, how can health be preserved, and who is responsible for promoting health and preventing disease?

Discussion Questions/Essay Topics:

  • Compare public responses to germ theory and genetic medicine: has a ‘gospel of genes’ replaced the ‘gospel of germs’?
  • Did the rise of germ theory help or harm public health provision in the USA or Britain?
  • Assess the commercial OR legal impacts of germ theory OR genetics in the USA.

Required Readings:

Nathaniel Comfort, ‘"Polyhybrid Heterogeneous Bastards": Promoting Medical Genetics in America in the 1930s and 1940s’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 61 (2006) pp. 415-455 e-journal Read this one last!

Judith Walzer Leavitt, ‘"Typhoid Mary" Strikes Back Bacteriological Theory and Practice in Early Twentieth-Century Public Health’, Isis, 83 (1992), pp. 608-629 e-journal

Nancy Tomes, The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women and the Microbe in American Life (Cambridge, 1998), ‘Ch. 6: The Domestication of the Germ' e-book (read first!)

Further Readings:

Daniel E. Bender, ‘Perils of Degeneration: Reform, the Savage Immigrant, and the Survival of the Unfit’, Journal of Social History, 42 (2008), pp. 5-29. e-journal

Brian Beaton, ‘Racial Science Now: Histories of Race and Science in the Age of Personalized Medicine’, The Public Historian, 29 (2007), pp. 157-162. e-journal

Timothy Burke, Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe (London, 1996), esp. chapters 1, 5, 6.

Arthur Daemmrich, ‘The Evidence Does Not Speak for Itself: Expert Witnesses and the Organization of DNA-Typing Companies’, Social Studies of Science, 28 (1998), pp. 741-772. e-journal

John Farley, ‘Parasites and the Germ Theory of Disease’, in Charles E. Rosenberg and Janet Golden, eds, Framing Disease: Studies in Cultural History (New Brunswick NJ, 1992).

Anne Fausto Sterling, ‘Refashioning Race: DNA and the Politics of Health Care’, d i f f e r e n c e s: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, 15 (2004), pp. 2-37. e-journal

Kaja Finkler, Experiencing the New Genetics: Family and kinship on the medical frontier (Philadelphia, 2000).

Bert Hansen, ‘America's First Medical Breakthrough: How Popular Excitement about a French Rabies Cure in 1885 Raised New Expectations for Medical Progess' The American Historical Review, 103 (1998), pp. 373-418. e-journal

Suellen Hoy, Chasing Dirt: the American Pursuit of Cleanliness (Oxford, 1995).

Annemarie Jutel, ‘Classification, Disease, and Diagnosis’, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 54 (2011), pp. 189-205. e-journal 

Amâde M’charek, ‘Technologies of Population: Forensic DNA Testing Practices and the Making of Differences and Similarities’, Configurations, 8 (2000), pp. 121 158. e-journal

Joel Mokyr, ‘Why "More Work for Mother?" Knowledge and Household Behavior, 1870-1945’, The Journal of Economic History, 60 (2000), 1-41. e-journal

Dorothy Nelkin, M. Susan Lindee, ‘Chapter 1, The Powers of the Gene’, in Dorothy Nelkin, M. Susan Lindee, The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon (Ne York, 1995), pp. 1-18.

Dorothy Nelkin, M. Susan Lindee, ‘Chapter 8, Genetic Essentialism Applied’, in Dorothy Nelkin, M. Susan Lindee, The DNA Mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon ( York, 1995), pp. 149-168.

Moses Ochonu, ‘“Native Habits are Difficult to Change”: British Medics and the Dilemmas of Biomedical Discourses and Practice in Early Colonial Northern Nigeria’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 5 (2004), no pages. e-journal

Katherine Ott, Fevered Lives: Tuberculosis in American Culture since 1870 (Cambridge, MA, 1996), pp. 53-61.

Shobita Parthasarathy, Building Genetic Medicine: Breast Cancer, Technology, and the Comparative Politics of Health Care (Cambridge, MA, 2007).

Harold L. Platt, ‘"Clever Microbes": Bacteriology and Sanitary Technology in Manchester and Chicago during the Progressive Age’, Osiris , 19 (2004), pp. 149-16 e-journal

Chieko Nakajima, ‘Health and Hygiene in Mass Mobilization: Hygiene Campaigns in Shanghai, 1920–1945’, Twentieth-Century China, 34 (2008), pp. 42-72. e-journal

Nicolas Pethes, ‘Terminal Men: Biotechnological Experimentation and the Reshaping of "the Human" in Medical Thrillers’, New Literary History, 36 (2005), pp. 1-185 e-journal

Kaushik Sunder Rajan, Biocapital: The Constitution of Postgenomic Life (Durham, NC, 2006).

Rayna Rapp, Deborah Heath and Karen Sue Taussig, ‘Flexible Eugenics: Technologies of the Self in the Age of Genetics’, in Alan Goodman, Deborah Heath and S Lindee, eds, Genetic Nature/ Culture: Anthropology and Science Beyond the Two Culture Divide (Berkley: University of California Press,2001) pp. 58-76. [Available at]

Nancy Tomes, The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women and the Microbe in American Life (Cambridge, MA, 1998). e-book

John Harley Warner, ‘Ideals of Science and Their Discontents in Late Nineteenth-Century American Medicine’, Isis, 82 (1991), pp. 454–478 e-journal

John Harley Warner, The Therapeutic Perspective: Medical Practice, Knowledge, and Identity in America, 1820–1885 (Cambridge, MA, Harvard Univ. Press, 1986).

Michael Worboys, Spreading Germs: Disease Theories and Medical Practice in Britain, 1865–1900 (Cambridge, 2000).

Digital resources

On germ theory:

Films on the Wellcome's YouTube channel! Look especially at their playlist 'Hygiene' (playlists are at the bottom of this page: )