The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life (Paperback)
  • The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life (Paperback)

The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life (Paperback)

Paperback 368 Pages
Published: 01/09/1999
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AIDS. Ebola. "Killer microbes." All around us the alarms are going off, warning of the danger of new, deadly diseases. And yet, as Nancy Tomes reminds us in her absorbing book, this is really nothing new. A remarkable work of medical and cultural history, The Gospel of Germs takes us back to the first great "germ panic" in American history, which peaked in the early 1900s, to explore the origins of our modern disease consciousness.

Little more than a hundred years ago, ordinary Americans had no idea that many deadly ailments were the work of microorganisms, let alone that their own behavior spread such diseases. The Gospel of Germs shows how the revolutionary findings of late nineteenth-century bacteriology made their way from the laboratory to the lavatory and kitchen, with public health reformers spreading the word and women taking up the battle on the domestic front. Drawing on a wealth of advice books, patent applications, advertisements, and oral histories, Tomes traces the new awareness of the microbe as it radiated outward from middle-class homes into the world of American business and crossed the lines of class, gender, ethnicity, and race.

Just as we take some of the weapons in this germ war for granted--fixtures as familiar as the white porcelain toilet, the window screen, the refrigerator, and the vacuum cleaner--so we rarely think of the drastic measures deployed against disease in the dangerous old days before antibiotics. But, as Tomes notes, many of the hygiene rules first popularized in those days remain the foundation of infectious disease control today. Her work offers a timely look into the history of our long-standing obsession with germs, its impact on twentieth-century culture and society, and its troubling new relevance to our own lives.

Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 9780674357082
Number of pages: 368
Weight: 490 g
Dimensions: 235 x 156 mm


[A] masterly study of how germs infiltrated the American imagination...The strength of Tomes's book...lies in the subtle and convincing way in which it traces the transformations in everyday beliefs, experiences, and habits produced by medicine's migration from the laboratory to the lavatory. Skillfully researched and skillfully written, it charts the 'revolution in personal hygiene' that helped to create a safer environment even as it produced new prejudices about purity and danger. - Roy Porter, New Republic

The book depicts mass culture not simply as a medium through which doctors' discoveries were communicated to a passive populace but as the site of an active dialogue between science and society...provides a valuable starting place for general historians of modern America to explore the relation between mass culture and medical science and likely will be the book to assign on health and medicine in undergraduate courses on twentieth-century American cultural history. - Martin S. Pernick, American Historical Review

This account...nicely weaves together many strands of social history from the decades on either side of the start of the 20th century...Individual and institutional beliefs about where microbial danger resided and what could be done about it evolved with the insights of biology, the advances of medicine and the epidemiology of prevalent diseases. The evolution continues, as the author points out in an especially interesting epilogue, as public health officials today find themselves going up against lessons of the past. - David Brown, Washington Post Book World

Tomes's book is a fine example of the new social history of biomedical science, full of fascinating detail, elegantly written and cogently argued. In exposing the values and practices of our ancestors, it has much to teach us about ourselves. - W.F. Bynum, Nature

This book will make you smile as you think about the personal habits of friends and families and it will stir up anger as you consider the ways in which the so-called Reagan Revolution of the 1980s endowed us with a decaying public health infrastructure...As Nancy Tomes explores the vast social changes wrought by the germ theory--the idea that some diseases are caused by living organisms--she is careful to note its complexities. Acknowledging the very real accomplishments of Progressive Era reformers, such as pasteurization of milk and inspection of meat, she also demonstrates that 'their achievements were limited by deeply ingrained patterns of economic injustice and racial prejudice.' And writing of the legacy of the germ theory, she poignantly notes that the lessons about contagion that Americans learned so well in the early decades of the twentieth century would come back to haunt Ryan White and others with HIV...It is tempting to think of [author>Tomes's] a sermon. As such, it has a simple but eloquent conclusion:...We should learn from the past: we are not going to protect our health with hand sanitizers, home tap water filters, vitamins and, for those who can afford it, private health insurance. We need a public, not a private, health movement in the twenty-first century, just as we did in the twentieth. - Janet Golden, Women's Review of Books

[The Gospel of Germs] is an exciting and vivid story based on careful analysis of oral histories, advertisements, patent applications, books of advice, and other sources. Tomes tells how [the belief that microbes cause disease] transformed the thinking of ordinary Americans and how it often also transformed their domestic arrangements. Although similar changes occurred in other Western countries, Tomes presents evidence that the American experience was distinctive because of the influence of advertising and the special role of crusades against disease in American political culture...This is a fascinating story and a fascinating book. It is written in a scholarly manner with ample references for the use of the historian and the physician, as well as the casual reader. Members of the medical profession and the general public will find that this book makes for compelling and exciting reading. It gives a vital perspective for comprehending the continuing problems that infectious disease poses for society and public health...The compassionate application of the gospel of germs is as important as ever for human welfare not only in the United States but also throughout the world. - J.A. Walker-Smith, M.D., New England Journal of Medicine

Nancy Tomes's lucid The Gospel of Germs offers a gripping social history of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century conversion of Americans from the belief in the zymotic theory of illness, in which maladies were thought to generate spontaneously from decaying organic matter, to the belief in the new germ theory of Pasteur and Koch. Tomes has written not so much an account of scientific discovery per se--though her book does offer illuminating glimpses of the laboratory work of the great medical scientists of a century ago--as a social history of the behavioural modifications such discoveries entailed. Her enthnoscientific approach honours both the biological dimension of disease and the cultural construction of cleanliness. - Adam Bresnick, Times Literary Supplement

A quite wonderful book...A terrific read for the intelligent general reader who will find the narrative of our modern understandings of health and disease enormously suggestive and stimulating. The illustrations are particularly inviting and thought-provoking. - Regina Morantz-Sanchez, University of Michigan

This book makes a good case for the domestic sciences or home economics as playing an important role, thus not only do we here see how a complex scientific idea is played out for the average person in the home and work environment, but we also see two important new professions of women, home economics and visiting nurses at work...This book will have such an appeal... Nancy Tomes has masterfully captured the story about the behaviors associated with the increasing knowledge of microbes of the past 120 or so years. - Gert H. Brieger, Johns Hopkins University

How Americans became aware of the existence of germs and how this awareness impacted their everyday lives is told in this illuminating medical/social history...The advent of antibiotics gave rise to a generation confident of having won the war against infectious disease. As Tomes points out, that confidence is waning with threats such as HIV and other viruses, the re-emergence of killer tuberculosis, and the growing resistance of common microorganisms to once-powerful antibiotics; thus the study of the gospel of germs seems especially relevant today...[It's] full of fascinating details of daily life. - Kirkus Reviews

Using scholarly and archival material, oral histories, and turn-of-the-century popular literature, Tomes illustrates numerous significant changes in [hygiene] lifestyle, many of which remain to this day...Extensively researched and extremely readable, this fascinating book is highly recommended for all libraries. - Tina Neville, Library Journal

Looking at the U.S. from 1870 to 1930, Tomes strove to find out how laypeople changed the ways they lived once they had accepted the existence of germs. She not only dug deeply and widely into popular literature, advertising, and novels, but organized her findings carefully. The resulting engaging book explores all rooms of the home, public buildings, and transportation carriers. Tomes presents information and analysis in readily understandable terms, aided by a wry sense of humor...Readers, who gratefully moved from an outdoor privy to a shiny white porcelain-fictured bathroom will have many memories stirred while reading Tomes, and laypersons and physicians alike will appreciate her thoroughly documented report. - William Beatty, Booklist

Nancy Tomes fills in a largely untold chunk of this story in her meticulously researched and constantly surprising history of the idea of the germ between 1870 and 1930 in the USA... Tomes' tome offers an important piece in this jigsaw puzzle and a definitive and highly readable contribution to the history of modern public health science. - V. Curtis, Endeavor

The Gospel of Germs is both an historical account of how Americans developed an understanding of the germ theory of disease, and an analysis intended to extend and reinforce that understanding...It is beautifully written--lucid, jargon-free, carefully presented in short, digestible sections, thoughtfully illustrated. - Anne Hardy, Public Understanding of Science

Tomes's main purpose is to chronicle the impact of the germ theory during its early decades, particularly between 1870 and 1930, on social and domestic life in the US. It is an aim admirably fulfilled, with lucidity, colour and scholarly comprehensiveness--qualities rarely found together in the same book. Much of the illumination comes from the countless vignettes with which Tomes, a medical historian, peppers her text...Major themes of this fine book are the measures adopted to avoid malevolent microbes, and the links between those precautions and wider issues such as social justice and working conditions in the US...A superbly written account. - Bernard Dixon, New Scientist

Ugh, germs! As Nancy Tomes points out in this fascinating book, nothing horrifies...more than the thought of that vast population of invisible creatures...It was not always so. Tomes traces the complex web of events that have made the United States the most germ-conscious society on the planet...Most histories of the transformations wrought by the germ theory of disease deal with the introduction of immunisation and of sterile surgical techniques. Tomes takes a more general view and examines the impact of the germ theory on daily life. And Tomes paints a vivid picture...This book is social history at its best. I recommend it to anyone interested in how our modern world came to be. - Christopher Wills, Times Higher Education Supplement

[A] sparkling account of popular assimilation of the germ theory...In shifting historical attention away from municipal engineering and towards the 'reformation of individual and household hygiene', Tomes delivers an impressive study of public health and its relation to the public's daily life. - James Hanley, Medical History

The most intriguing parts of this book are the anecdotes: the fact that the American President, Garfield, survived an assassin's bullet in 1881, only to succumb to 'bad smells' from the sewers seems ridiculous now, until we set it in context with the rescue teams around the world who regularly kit themselves out with face-masks. The lesson here is that superstition is as rife today as it was a hundred years ago. - Brian J. Ford, Biologist

There is a timeless quality to the issues Nancy Tomes raises in The Gospel of Germs...Tomes is not simply addressing the fear of exposure from 'invisible enemies,' but detailing in very persuasive terms how Americans came to believe in the existence of germs and how that belief changed our lives...By focusing on the important subplot in the larger history of health and medicine, she is advancing our knowledge of the classic dilemma between advocacy of individual as opposed to community health, and broadening our understanding of preventative medicine. This excellent study asks important questions about the state of medicine in America by deepening our appreciation of its social implications. - Martin V. Melosi, Reviews in American History

Nancy Tomes has written a masterful study about the process through which cleanliness came to be newly conceptualized in America during the four decades with 1900 at their center. This is a book about the transformation of a cultural ideal--purity--from a concern for visible tidiness to a preoccupation with unseen but deadly microbes...This book is essential reading for historians of American medicine and public health, and will prove equally interesting for the general reading public, who may have long puzzled over their grandmothers' obsessive preoccupation with germs. - Margaret Humphreys, Bulletin of the History of Medicine

The Gospel of Germs tells an important and fascinating story of the impact of the germ theory on 'ordinary Americans' at the turn of the century...[It] is beautifully written and perceptive. Filled with wonderful anecdotes and well-chosen illustrations, it clearly depicts the dramatic impact of the germ theory on American culture...The Gospel of Germs is a book that should be read by a wide audience. The author is extremely successful in demonstrating the important link between scientific understanding and everyday life. Her insights into the germ theory's impact on material culture are wonderful, as are her arguments about its effect on everyday behavior. Informing not only cultural expectations of the past but also present-day reactions to AIDS and other infectious diseases, the book provides important lessons for both the scholar and the lay reader. - Carole Baber, Winterthur Portfolio

An engaging romp through what one reviewer called the 'century of germs.' - Globe and Mail

In this engaging and beautifully written book, Tomes explains how germs came to capture the American psyche and insert themselves as veritable actors in turn-of- the-century culture…Tomes has sifted through an intriguing array of primary sources and refers to a wide variety of secondary sources in a manner that enhances their accessibility….A must for medical historians, this book will also interest cultural historians, students, and the general reader. - Jacalyn Duffin, The Journal of American History

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