A sepia-toned pen and ink lithograph of three men each looking into an arm of a tripod microscope

We Should Pay Attention to Germ Theory!

Robert Rich, health correspondent

I don’t know about you, but I’ve pretty much lost all of my patience with getting sick all the time. Diseases seem to be running rampant constantly, and while I understand the temptation to throw your hands in the air and give up, I feel like there has to be something we can do – both as a society and on an individual level. Well, here’s the thing, there might actually be something we can do. Or at least something we can try. But it’s going to take a lot of adjustment.

For anyone who may not be paying attention to the global scientific community (or to the scientific community in general), there are a couple of people across the Atlantic who may have figured out the cause of most of our sicknesses. French microbiologist Louis Pasteur and German physician Robert Koch think that it all comes down to tiny animals. I mean very, very tiny. So tiny as to be practically invisible without the aid of a microscope.

The scientists believe that these small, single-celled organisms (referred to as “germs”) serve a variety of functions, depending on the critter. For example, Pasteur says he’s found that some of these creatures live in the very air we breathe and cause purification in dead tissue. And Koch claims to have found two different types of “germ” that are the respective causes of diseases like tuberculosis and cholera.

Their research is still ongoing, of course, and science is always changing and shifting along with the data, but a lot of things start to fall in place when you consider the idea of “germs” correlating with sickness. Think about the last time you were ill: were you previously in close proximity to someone else who appeared to be sick? Maybe, if Pasteur and Koch are correct, that person coughed up hundreds of invisible animals that you then inhaled, which then proceeded to spread their effects to you.

Now I’m no scientist, but maybe something we could do to combat these small monsters is to better protect ourselves? For example, if someone is coughing, we could try not getting too close to them – or possibly even covering our faces with cloth or something. Soap seems to kill most of these tiny plague bearers, so what if we tried cleaning our surfaces, utensils and selves more thoroughly and often?

Steps like this might seem extreme, or even burdensome, compared to what we’re used to, but think back to the last time you were feeling infirm. Isn’t it worth at least an attempt? Because worst case scenario, nothing changes. But best-case scenario, maybe next time someone in your family comes down with the croup, you won’t.


For the past several decades Robert Rich has been enamored with fantastical writing and other subjects, from stories by Mary Shelley and Jules Verne to the illustrations of Émile-Antoine Bayard and Albert Robida, and has had the good fortune of being able to write about it all. Most days you can find him wistfully sitting at his desk with a mug of tea or browsing through the fiction section of his local book shop.


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