Something decidedly odd


The horse drawn carriage halted outside the imposing building. Sir James Lancefield hurried himself out. Barely pausing at the reception of The Learned Society to remove his coat and hat, he then took the marble staircase two stairs at a time. As he entered the meeting room with his bundle of papers, the gentlemen were already assembled.

“This evening, gentlemen, I am going to examine germ theory.” Sir James announced.

A number of the assembled members smiled wryly and rolled their eyes. Others appeared more expectant.

“Germ theory proposes that infections and, er, lots of other things,” Sir James smiled and drew he hands wide, “are caused by tiny little ‘germs’ that we cannot see.”

“It is an appealing idea that is quite the fashion among certain physicians but tonight I want to expose it to proper, scientific scrutiny.”

“Hear, hear!” Came an affirmation from the back of the room.

“Firstly, what are these germs? Mr Pasteur, the Frenchman, is not clear. The claim is that disease is caused by these diabolical agents but we cannot even count them! A germ theory without germs appears somewhat misnamed!”

The assembled gentlemen laughed.

Mr Callow was not laughing. A slim and youthful physician, he possessed an eager smile. He raised his hand. “I understand that the provision of microscopes and their employment is promising in this regard, sir.”

Sir James paused and surveyed the room. He smiled, “Well, we are always encouraged by promise, Mr Callow.”

The gentlemen laughed.

Sir James continued, “Another issue for the field is the small, circular, insular group of gentlemen who correspond on the matter of germ theory. The theory is not widely discussed in England and so it is the creature of but a few voices, lacking the benefit of the experience of the majority. Indeed, it lacks the insights that could be provided by the gentlemen in this room.”

The gentlemen murmured their agreement that this was a serious and substantive flaw.

“Germ theory claims to be a unique and distinct theory. That is why we are supposed to be drawn to it. And yet similar ideas have been around since at least the Middle Ages, to little heed. And is it so unique really? Other theories of malady stress the need for cleanliness and sanitation. This is no undisputed claim staked by the germ theorists.”

Mr Callow again raised his hand. “Are you talking about miasma?” he asked, eagerly, “I know you have previously corresponded to the society on this matter.”

“Mr Callow,” admonished Sir James, “my correspondences are irrelevant to the matter at hand. I am motivated purely by a disinterested regard for furthering scholarship. I see my role as a public duty – often performed at my own expense I may add – to pursue the greater good.”

Mr Henderson, the stout, middle-aged secretary of the society then intervened. “I think this is a critical juncture. I, for one, am not interested in simplistic discourse about whether germ theory is right or wrong. As a theory it strikes me as rather inelegant. And all the late speculation, inspired by Mr Darwin, about how germs may evolve seems useless to those who work with real patients. I am far more interested in the effects. What are the effects? Are they of any use?”

“Well,” replied Sir James, “the theory does make a large number of predictions about the transmission of disease, ways to prevent this and so on. Many of these are not unique to germ theory and some, for example vaccination, appear to be contradictory to others. The main issue that confronts one who studies germ theory is that you need to create something of a zoology to categorise all of the ventured effects!”

The gentlemen laughed. Mr Henderson continued, “And this is the point. Advocates of germ theory really need to decide upon its scope. Is it just a theory about surgery or does in encompass diseases such as cholera? What about other afflictions? The germ theorists have been most inconsistent on this matter.”

“Inconsistency serves its purpose, Mr Henderson,” Sir James explained conspiratorially as he mentally rehearsed his final flourish. “Let me give two examples. A surgeon of noble bearing does not wash his hands, completes an amputation and the patient remains clear of gangrene. Germ theory can explain this: there must not have been sufficient germs on the surgeon’s hands. Now consider that the patient’s limb became gangrenous. Germ theory can explain this too: there were sufficient germs on the surgeon’s hands in this case. In germ theory, all results may be explained! Why? Because ‘sufficient’ remains helpfully undefined.” Sir James turned to Mr Callow, “Sir, precisely how many germs would you say are needed to cause gangrene?”

“I could not say, sir.” Replied Mr Callow.

“So from the point of view of a surgeon, what does this germ theory really have to offer?”

The question hung in the air.

After a short while, Mr Henderson rose. “Well, I think you will all agree with me that Sir James has gone above and beyond his duty in preparing for this night’s presentation. I cannot think of anyone more informed on this fashionable germ theory nor anyone more appropriate to explain it to the learned gentlemen present.”

The gentlemen applauded.

As Mr Callow clapped, he could not help feeling that something decidedly odd had just happened.

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