HOW THE DISCOVERY OF GERMS CHANGED SOCIETY – BY ELLIN CURLEY

In ancient societies, people thought diseases were caused by an imbalance of body fluids or by angry Gods. Centuries later, scientists suspected that illnesses might be transmitted through air or water but they weren’t sure how. Then, in the mid-19th century, Germ Theory proved that tiny microorganisms, like bacteria and viruses, definitively caused disease. This discovery had a profound effect on almost all aspects of human behavior.

You would be appalled by some of the common practices before people understood that germs cause disease. Families shared toothbrushes as well as dinner utensils and public drinking fountains had a single cup that was shared by everyone. Lodgers in inns routinely shared beds with same-sex strangers and families often had several members sharing beds at home.

Customs changed and laws were passed rapidly to adapt to the new scientific knowledge about infectious diseases. Sharing beds and silverware was suddenly unacceptable and restaurants began making male waiters shave their large beards and mustaches. Long skirts for women and heavy Victorian draperies for windows went out of style because all the heavy folds of fabric were thought to harbor germs. Laws were passed to outlaw public spitting, a very common practice among men. An entire industry came into being producing sanitary products and disinfectants, which is how Listerine was born.

Wicker was believed to be germ-resistant so it became the material of choice for seating. The invention of plastic wrap (by the Cellophane Company) in the 1920s was touted as a major sanitary innovation because it could keep food and other personal items germ-free. Refrigerators and vacuum cleaners became necessities for keeping a clean, hygienic house, the new primary goal of all women.

Another esoteric custom came into being. Have you ever wondered why sheets are folded down over the blanket at the head of the bed? We didn’t always do that. Once germs were discovered, sheets were lengthened so that they could protect the blanket from human touch. Therefore the blankets stayed germ-free and could be reused and needed to be washed less frequently than the sheets. Who’d have guessed that one?

The adoption of sanitary practices had some wonderful effects. For example, the frightening levels of infant mortality were greatly reduced. In 1870, 175 of every thousand infants died within the first year of life but by 1930, that number was down to 75. Unfortunately, there was also a serious negative effect on children, as child-rearing practices took an ominous turn.

By the end of the 19th Century, mothers and child givers were warned against cuddling or even touching children for fear of spreading deadly infections. Chilly, aloof, and almost totally non-physical relationships with children were encouraged by doctors and even the government. Parents were told they would do psychological damage as well as physical harm to their children by ‘spoiling’ them if they showed any kind of physical affection. It was this hands-off approach that did serious damage to generations of children because it goes against the inherent need for physical affection that all primate share.

This awful period of child-rearing didn’t end until WWII. That’s when John Bowlby developed attachment theory after observing the damaging effects of children being separated from their parents when they were sent away to ‘safer’ areas during the Blitz in England. Bowlby believed that the attachment between a child and its parents is one of the most important factors in determining a child’s mental and even physical health. He believed that anything that damages the formation of that attachment, like the absence of physical contact and emotional warmth, would have a lasting impact on a child’s emotional and cognitive development.

Around the same time as Bowlby, an American psychologist named Harry Harlow did world-famous studies with monkeys that proved that all primates have an instinctual need for touch and affection. He also found that baby monkeys who were deprived of physical contact exhibited abnormal and even pathological behavior. His work bolstered Bowlby’s and helped initiate a new era of child-centered and emotionally as well as physically connected parenting. My father was a prominent psychoanalyst and anthropologist who wrote in the 1940s and 1950s about the importance of parental intimacy, stimulation, and affection for their kids, especially in the first, critical three years of life.

I always find it fascinating to unravel the connections between seemingly unrelated events in history. There was a wonderful PBS show years ago, aptly called “Connections” that did precisely that. The concept is similar to the “butterfly effect.” I never would have thought that the discovery of germs would influence child-rearing for several generations.

Maybe our experience with the Coronavirus pandemic will have similar, unpredictable effects in all different areas of life. We can guess that more people will work from home from now on, that many people may eat out less frequently and maybe that shopping online will supplant in-person shopping for most things. But what else will change? Only time will tell.