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The Great Stink of Paris and the Nineteenth-Century Struggle against Filth and Germs

David S. Barnes

Publication Year: 2006

Late in the summer of 1880, a wave of odors emanated from the sewers of Paris. As the stench lingered, outraged residents feared that the foul air would breed an epidemic. Fifteen years later—when the City of Light was in the grips of another Great Stink—the landscape of health and disease had changed dramatically. Parisians held their noses and protested, but this time few feared that the odors would spread disease. Historian David S. Barnes examines the birth of a new microbe-centered science of public health during the 1880s and 1890s, when the germ theory of disease burst into public consciousness. Tracing a series of developments in French science, medicine, politics, and culture, Barnes reveals how the science and practice of public health changed during the heyday of the Bacteriological Revolution. Despite its many innovations, however, the new science of germs did not entirely sweep away the older "sanitarian" view of public health. The longstanding conviction that disease could be traced to filthy people, places, and substances remained strong, even as it was translated into the language of bacteriology. Ultimately, the attitudes of physicians and the French public were shaped by political struggles between republicans and the clergy, by aggressive efforts to educate and "civilize" the peasantry, and by long-term shifts in the public's ability to tolerate the odor of bodily substances. This fascinating study sheds new light on the scientific and social factors that continue to influence the public's lingering uncertainty over how disease can—and cannot—be spread.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. vii


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pp. ix-xi

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pp. 1-11

This story begins and ends with a wave of foul odors in Paris. In 1880, a pervasive and disgusting stench afflicted the city for most of the summer, provoking a popular outcry and a minor political crisis. According to the consensus of medical experts and ordinary Parisians, the odors either could cause or did cause disease. In 1895, a similar stink arose in the city...

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1 “Not Everything That Stinks Kills”: Odors and Germs in the Streets of Paris, 1880

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pp. 12-64

In the late summer of 1880 in Paris, death was in the air, and it smelled like excrement. That, at least, was the prevailing opinion at the time, shared and vociferously proclaimed by scientists, medical doctors, elected representatives, and ordinary Parisians. For more than two months, oppressive and insufferable odors pervaded the air of the capital...

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2 The Sanitarians’ Legacy, or How Health Became Public

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pp. 65-104

When Napoleon I went into his final exile in 1815, the science of health in France—“hygiene”—was an abstraction, an ideal, a set of recipes for healthy bourgeois living. By the time his nephew took power in 1848, “hygiene” had gone “public,” and had grown into a quantitative, empirical domain of rigorous local investigation—the gritty science of filth, slums, and deviance...

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3 Taxonomies of Transmission: Local Etiologies and the Equivocal Triumph of Germ Theory

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pp. 105-139

Typhoid fever is caused by a bacterium first identified by Karl Eberth in 1880 as Bacillus typhosus, and later renamed Salmonella typhi. The mere fact that a disease could be said to have a single cause (whether a microorganism or not) is the product of an epistemological sea change that took place between 1875 and 1900...

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4 Putting Germ Theory into Practice

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pp. 140-193

Revolutionary etiological breakthroughs and the assimilation of time-honored sanitarian knowledge into the new language and new scientific paradigm of bacteriology were only the first steps in the establishment of a new public health regime in France. The new knowledge would prove barren if it did not produce practical strategies and policies to combat disease...

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5 Toward a Cleaner and Healthier Republic

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pp. 194-228

When Jacques Botrel, epidemic doctor for the district of St.- Malo (Ille-et-Vilaine) in Brittany, reported to the departmental health board on the epidemics that had a

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6 Odors and “Infection,” 1880 and Beyond

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pp. 229-259

The tireless efforts of provincial epidemic doctors in the 1880s and 1890s to convert the rural populace to the civilized standards of bacteriological hygiene produced mixed results. Like Parisians, provincial families embraced specific technologies promising immediate protection—such as disinfection and diphtheria antitoxin...

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Epilogue: The Legacy of the Twentieth Century

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pp. 260-270

In 2001, more than a century after its founder’s death, the Pasteur Institute convened an international summit to review the state of hygiene and health at the dawn of the twenty-first century. The assembled authorities noted with concern that “in the ‘hygienized’ world, infectious diseases have reawakened.” Ironically, the chief culprit responsible for undermining decades of progress was identified as . . . progress itself...


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pp. 271-306


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pp. 307-314

E-ISBN-13: 9780801888731
E-ISBN-10: 0801888735
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801883491
Print-ISBN-10: 0801883490

Page Count: 328
Illustrations: 4 line drawings, 11 halftones
Publication Year: 2006