The idea that washing hands is an important step in fighting disease may seem common sense now but it didn’t come as easy as that. This is a “discovery” that took some time getting accepted by the world. It was in 1844 that the Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis first noticed at an obstetric clinic in Vienna that the death rate at two divisions in the hospital was different. In one, students came directly from the dissecting room to the maternity ward. The disease that caused death rates as high as 30 per cent and was the scourge of maternity wards was childbed (puerperal) fever. He surmised that the probable cause of the disease was doctors carrying germs from the dead to those who came to deliver at the hospital. He instructed his students to wash their hands with chlorinated lime solution before entering the maternity ward and the mortality rate fell.
However, his findings did not find acceptance among the medical fraternity. Eventually, and after years of rejection and humiliation, Dr Ignaz Semmelweis suffered a breakdown and died in a mental hospital in 1865. Only later was his work and persistence acknowledged as a significant contribution to germ theory, a widely accepted theory only from the late 19th century. As Google wrote when honouring him with a doodle in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic three days ago: “Today, Semmelweis is widely remembered as ‘the father of infection control’, credited with revolutionising not just obstetrics, but the medical field itself, informing generations beyond his own that handwashing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of diseases.”
The germ theory of disease was accepted only around 1880, and it establishes that microorganisms like bacteria or virus cause many diseases. Before this, the dominating approach was a fuzzy idea that said diseases were caused by miasma, a Greek term for pollution, bad air, also called “night air”, emanating from rotting organic matter, or other unexplained social or moralistic modes of transmission.
The evolution of Germ theory has been reflected in the literary work, particularly novels on plagues. Early writers had been fascinated with capturing the horrors of the epidemic, and its consequences; misery, pain, suffering and death. The dreaded epidemics feature in the scriptures, too. For instance, the book of Samuel carries a story of the stolen Ark from Lords of Israelites [Freemon, Frank (2005), Bubonic plague in the Book of Samuel Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine)]. Interestingly, one of the Hindu scriptures, Bhagawati Purana enumerates measures to be taken when the plague strikes, such as deserting the habitat as soon as rodents seen dying and other rituals to be performed [(King W.G. (1924), Correspondence, The Hindu and Plague. The British Medical Journal]. In the novel narratives, along with portraying the sufferings, the subject of fear is dealt by playing around plague as a result of the “wrath of God”, echoing the prevailing religious, socio-political milieu. Some of the literary work based on the situation in England such as 'A Journal of the Plague Year' (1722) by Daniel Defoe, play writer Thomas Nashe's plays (1590s) and Thomas Dekker's Plague Pamphlets (1600s), centred around plague as a divine rage against the cruel intentions of human; most of the reasons sorted were to divine disappointment/disapproval of greed for riches, exploitation of poor by wealthy lords, lack of charity, the decay of moral and social values among men, ingratitude, myopia etc. Along with the theory of Divine displeasure, some agreed with distempered air (miasma theory), and the contagions, which was referred to as "natural instruments", that God used to spread the plague. When the scientific knowledge wasn't adequate stories and myths took the place to give plausible explanations to the mysterious appearance of marks and scars in the body [Healy Margaret (2003) Defoe's Journal and English Plague Writing Tradition].
From about late 19th century, when the germ theory gained currency, the writing narratives around plague and epidemics changed the tone to what may be today called as Science Fiction (Sci-Fi). In the 18th century, English novelist Mary Shelley's, apocalyptic novel 'The Last Man' (1826), talks about immunisation, reflecting the scientific research and studies undertaken during the 19th century. The apocalyptic novel of early 20th century, the Scarlet Plague (1912) by Jack London, reflected last century's breakthrough acknowledgement of germs theory, i.e. scientific discoveries of pathogens, mechanism of disease transmissions that causes epidemics like situation. It was a shift from the paradigms of divine punishment or rage [Riva MA (2014), Pandemic Fear and Literature]. However, the theme of fear among people remains the same throughout the centuries in plague and epidemic literature. 'During the middle ages the fear was around the God's wrath, and in the modern secular world, people fear that a disease may take control of a man' [Reet Hiiemäe, (2004) Journal of Folklore], which is also seen in the present context of COVID-19 Pandemic. How different is it in today’s times, one wonders. We read it on Twitter every day, like the tweet from someone very famous in Mumbai, who wrote of the ringing of the bells and the sounding of the gongs: “5 p.m. 22nd Mar, ‘amavasya’, darkest day of the month; virus, bacteria evil force at max potential & power! Clapping shankh vibrations reduce/destroy virus potency…” The tweet was subsequently deleted amid outrage from some saner minds.
Epidemics have led humans to witness the unimaginable consequences, as seen in today’s given situation. We can note that the world has dramatically changed due to COVID-19 in just the last two weeks. Despite the medical strides, establishments like the World Health Organisation, better diagnostics, equipped health workers, we still fear of spilling of millions of pathogens, undiscovered, mutating, dangerous and unknown, into the human population.
The 21st century media narratives keep warning us about this fact. The recent Netflix docuseries warns us about the deadly consequence of a Pandemic and asks the fundamental as well as difficult question whether the world is prepared to tackle the flu pandemic? The answer to it can be seen in the on-going world health crisis. Although our worldview may have shifted since middle-ages to contemporary times, still one theme that resonates is that humans (recently human technology) are to be blamed for their destruction, besides the point on scientific discovery of other pathogens. Environmental degradation, deforestation, increasing consumerism (animals used for a pet, delicacies, and medicinal purposes) has displaced our flora and fauna, due to which the threats of pathogens are much higher these days.
Further, scientists, zoologists rightly point out "animals are mixing in weird ways that have never happened before", with accessible commutation mode, invading wildlife habitat and displacement, etc. The COVID-19 is maybe the first-ever warning alarm to humans "that environmental damage can kill humans fast too."
The writer is a programme associate with the Foundation of The Billion Press. Syndicate: The Billion Press