How Do You See Invisible Germs?

Sorry for the gap in posts, but the last few days have been a little hectic. And I suppose it’s appropriate that I seem to be coming down with a bit of a cold as I decide to write about The Gospel of Germs by Nancy Tomes. I just finished Tomes’s book last week, and it inspired me to think about how the invisible is visualized in a popular context. Her perceptive and illuminating book describes the acceptance and interpretation of the germ theory of disease around the turn of the last century—from advertising to anti-tuberculosis societies, from labor unions to Listerine. Fascinating stuff.

Because 19th-century microscopes didn’t really allow for photography (I tried searching for when the first photographs were taken through a microscope, to no avail, but I’ll update you if I learn anything), drawings of microbeasties had to stand in for actual photos. Of course, the same was true of most imagery that appeared in a newspaper or magazine of the day—it all had to be represented in etchings or lithographs (the first newspaper photograph appeared in 1880, although I admit that my source is a little off the beaten track). Unfortunately, I couldn’t find images online to help me illustrate the concept in the context of that time period. But the above drawing, which comes from a web page about “Infectious and Epidemic Disease in History” from the University of Califoria Irvine, underscores the basic idea.

I have previously commented on the unreliability of drawings compared to less subjective means of recording data, but Tomes’s book and the drawing above raise another issu: when the subjective role of illustration actually takes precedence over its objective goals. The point of the cartoon is not to communicate what a germ looks like—instead, it simply stands in for an unseen critter that obviously poses some kind of threat to us. It looks like a nasty bug. Indeed, some of the illustrations that appear in Tomes’s book use the same visual vocabulary—the insect-like features, the hairiness—to communicate the same thing (albeit not in such a cartoonish manner). Look at the iconography that surrounds the ever-popular Airborne® health formula, with its colorful, slightly creepy but mostly effete and harmless “bugs.” A little bit of the 19th-century threat remains, but the slightly bowdlerized images allow us to view the microscopic world as something fundamentally under our control.

Nowadays, when the variety of imagery available to us via microscopy, we can think of the microscopic world as incredibly detailed, fluorescently colored, or perhaps confusingly abstract, a cartoon like the one above is easily interpreted for what it is. But when an image represents a new concept, it’s all too easy for it to become literalized. I don’t know how many people at the end oft he 19th century perceived newspaper and magazine ad illustrations as true depictions of the (quite threatening) microscopic world, but surely the less cartoonish, albeit similarly demonizing, illustrations had an effect.

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