October 2, 1998

Ladies and Germs

Germs, and how they make us leave the world of rational thinking.


The story of a White House scandal from the year 1881. President James Garfield lay dying of a gunshot wound during that summer. But because our nation is crazy when it comes to the President, and because the White House is a national movie screen onto which we project a whole array of fears and misplaced idealism, Americans projected one of the big fears of the day onto Garfield. Namely, the fear of sewer gas. Rumors abounded that Garfield was not dying from the bullet in his back, but from vapors rising from the antiquated White House toilets. It became so serious that an independent expert was brought in to give a bipartisan assessment of the problem. The Senate voted to spend $300,000 to build a new White House, a sanitary one, right next to the original White House. And it would be nice to believe that all of this was the kind of hysteria that was only possible before the germ theory of disease was proven. But in fact, now we know how diseases are transmitted. Now that we know that there's no such thing as "sewer gas." But still, when it comes to germs, and our fear of disease, we are still irrational beings. Ira talks with Nancy Tomes, author of a history on the subject, The Gospel of Germs. (6 minutes)
Act One

Biblical Thinking In A Digital World

Reporter Hanna Rosen did an investigation of those new antibacterial products—the antibacterial soaps and lotions, the antibacterial pizza cutter and linen and underwear. In her article, she mocked these products as ineffective. She mocked the people who used them. And then, she found herself seized with a kind of anti-germ dementia. (11 minutes)
Act Two

20th Century Germ

Germs were first understood at the turn of the 20th century and it turns out that the aesthetics of everyday life during this century—the way we dress, the way we groom ourselves, the way we make our homes—are all partly a response to this newfangled idea of germs. (4 minutes)
Act Three

Ladies And Germs

The burden of keeping germs from hurting us in our everyday lives has fallen mostly on women, from the time science fully understood about the existence of germs. After all, women had to keep the home clean, had to prepare food safely. We hear from Emily Colas's funny and disturbingly honest account of her obsession with cleanliness and germs, from her book Just Checking. (5 minutes)
Act Five

The Conqueror Germ

Sean Collins on the germs within us, the germs that can kill us, and the germs that do kill us. He tells the story of the battle with germs that his friend Christopher lost, and contemplates what the germ won when it defeated his friend. (11 minutes)