THE GOSPEL OF GERMS by Nancy Tomes

THE GOSPEL OF GERMS

Men, Women, and the Microbe in American Life
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KIRKUS REVIEW

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. Tomes (History/SUNY, Stony Brook) looks at how the germ theory, first articulated around 1870 meshed with prior theories about the spread of disease. Proponents of the new “gospel of germs” were able to build on the traditional methods of preventing disease advocated by earlier sanitarians: disinfection, water purification, plumbing, and ventilation. Around the turn of the century, attention shifted from sewer gas, contaminated water, and household dirt to other means by which germs are spread, such as coughing, sneezing, and sharing drinking cups. Tomes reveals how the antituberculosis crusade and the domestic-science movement educated Americans about dealing with these hazards; and by using trade journals, advertisements, and patent applications the author shows how entrepreneurs exploited the fear of germs to promote a host of new goods and services. Shorter skirts for women, vacuum cleaners, window screens, white-tiled bathrooms, refrigerators, paper cups, cellophane packaging—all trace their origins to the desire to create a disease-free environment. The author also illustrates how disease awareness can be a two-edged sword, stirring fear of those groups—immigrants, minorities’suspected of carrying disease and at the same time providing the impetus for improving their living and working conditions. The advent of antibiotics, however, 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. Full of fascinating details of daily life, although there’s probably more about bathroom plumbing and toilets than most people ever wanted to know. (18 illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: April 7th, 1998
ISBN: 0-674-35707-8
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1998