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How germs (or the fear of them) spawned Modernism

The world’s attention has been fully trained for many months on detecting a microbe that, inevitably, most people will never see for themselves: SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. We take for granted the invisibility of this new enemy. But when scientists first ventured the hypothesis that germs were the cause of many virulent diseases, a hypothesis known as “germ theory,” the claim was met with substantial skepticism.

The scientific basis for germ theory emerged in the mid-19th century, yet debate over its validity continued for decades. In July 1919, for instance, The New York Times ran an article, “Doctors in Duel Over Germ Theory,” that ran as follows:

To prove his theory that germs do not cause disease, Dr. H. A. Zettel … today challenged Dr. H. W. Hill … to a duel to the death with germs. Dr. Hill accepted the challenge and the two will expose themselves to the most virulent of contagious diseases, including typhoid, smallpox, and bubonic plague. Dr. Zettel will use in his defense against the germs only sanitation, pure air, and sanitary food and drink. Dr. Hill will expose himself after scientific inoculation and vaccination. The survivor is to be honorary pallbearer at the funeral of the victim.

Rarely does hindsight provide such perfect clarity about the rights and wrongs of a dispute. Further wind at the back of germ theory was the fact that as Zettel and Hill were planning their duel, the world was contending with what remains the most deadly pandemic in recent history, the 1918 Spanish Flu, which caused more than 50 million deaths worldwide. Then (as now), the pandemic awoke public interest in infection prevention and control, and people around the world made substantial personal efforts to protect themselves, including wearing masks, and taking personal and domestic hygiene to new lengths.

All these efforts were limited, however, by the basic conundrum of germ theory: that infectious agents are imperceptible by the human senses and detectable only through complicated testing performed by experts. Bacteriologists had to admit the very inconvenient truth that a germ-infested surface and a sterile one looked exactly the same to the public eye.

In the face of this bad news, modernism provided not a solution, but rather an imaginative accommodation to the facts. Confronted with the perceptual gap between the capacities of the senses and the scale of germs, modernism offered a new model for private life, with more mechanized conveniences, enhanced opportunities for cleanliness, and lots of light and air. The startling newness of modernist aesthetics seemed to provide access to a better world, one in which design enabled health-preserving hygiene and the artist’s vision could transcend the messy and dangerous realities of everyday life.

Frankfurt kitchen. Public domain via Wikimedia


In the home, kitchens and bathrooms took on the appearance of laboratories, with a new emphasis on unadorned and sealed surfaces so that dirt could be easily seen. Modern architects explored the potential of glass, a material which seemed to embody a perfect visibility and gratify the desire to see the unseen. Bauhaus design, for example, was stripped down to emphasize its own structure; ornamentation on a building was considered positively immoral.

Like architecture and design, modernist literature also bodied forth the fear of germs and the desire for health through hygiene. T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland” (1922) speaks of “fear in a handful of dust.” Ezra Pound argued in “How To Read” (1931) that poets must maintain “the very cleanliness of the tools, the health of the very matter of thought itself.” William Carlos Williams spoke of the need for “hygienic writing,” writing that would have a cleansing effect on language. These were metaphors, of course, since no words were cleaner than any others, but modernist writers turned to a stripped-down style to exemplify hygiene in writing. Cleanliness, writers argued, could be expressed through clarity; as George Orwell was later to say, “Good prose is like a window pane.”

The always-incomplete quest for asepsis left its marks all over modernism, with traces that can be found in many iconic modernist works: Marcel Duchamp’s allusion to the “hygiene of the bride” in the Large Glass; Virginia Woolf’s opening reference in Between the Acts to an incomplete sewer system; the prevalence of scenes of bathing in paintings by Paul CezanneEdvard MunchDuncan Grant, and others; the centrality of the sink in Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye, and many more.

Bathing Man by Edvard Munch. Public domain via Wikimedia.

It remains to be seen how COVID-19 will reshape our imaginations and tastes in the future. We may have seen a hint in Eschaton, a live, on-line immersive theater production directed by Taylor Myers. Eschaton is accessed by audience members via a series of Zoom links, each with its own enigmatic passphrase. Entering the rooms of Eschaton, you find lonely spectacles overlooked by the visible audience members, each confined to their own squares.

One of the great themes of modernism was the longing for connection, an appealing counterweight to the public health requirement for distance. The performers of Eschaton seem to seek connection as well, despite the concessions now required again by the presence of the invisible enemy among us.

Featured Image Credit: Maison de Verre by Subrealistsandu via Wikimedia Commons under license CC BY-SA 3.0

Recent Comments

  1. Alan Munton

    It’s perhaps worth mentioning that another prominent modernist, Wyndham Lewis, actually suffered from the Spanish flu in February and March 1919. He was seriously unwell, but survived. This was shortly after “Guns”, his exhibition of war paintings and drawings, was shown in London. His outlook was influenced both by the war (in which he took part), and the illness he suffered. The impact shaped his thinking about war and culture, to an extent far greater than it affected Eliot, Pound or Woolf.


    …and what was the outcome of te duel between Drs. Zettel and Hill?
    In fact, Dr. Zettel’s “sanitation, pure air, and sanitary food and drink” excludes many germs and Dr. Hill’s “scientific inoculation and vaccination” would not defend him against several illnesses then common, for which vaccines had not yet been developed.

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