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  • James Joyce and Germ Theory:The Skeleton at the Feast
  • Martin Bock (bio)

In Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Beach recollects that Joyce was afraid of thunderstorms, heights, the sea, dogs, and infection.1 A healthy fear of germs and contagion would not be surprising among the members of the Irish population born in the nineteenth century who were lucky enough to survive. At least 775,000 people died in Ireland during the famine years (1846-1851), mostly from contagious disease, especially cholera.2 There were four influenza epidemics from 1890-1894 that spread from Europe to England, Scotland, and Ireland, and during the week ending on 23 January 1892 alone, medical historians estimate 1,858 Londoners died of influenza and the probable complications of bronchitis and pneumonia.3 Even in the absence of acute epidemics, tuberculosis routinely ended the lives of between one in ten and one in seven Europeans; infant mortality and childhood deaths from all causes were worse in Dublin than in Calcutta, and five of Joyce's siblings did not survive into adulthood.4 To complicate matters, the incidence of infectious disease was accompanied by a perceived, steady "rise in lunacy" that was alarming the British and Irish populations. A generation later, while Joyce was writing Ulysses, the great influenza pandemic of 1918-1920 dwarfed these epidemiological figures and killed fifty to one hundred million worldwide.5 The fear of infection in the early twentieth century, especially in someone who was attuned to medical issues, would hardly have been phobic.

In Joyce's younger days, germ theory was still the subject of serious debate, both among scientists and members of the medical profession. For much of the nineteenth century, disease was thought to be miasmic, that is, caused by a poison that lurks in the environment: in the water, air, or soil. The theory of contagious disease transmission devised by Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and other bacteriologists was not monolithically accepted, and even among proponents of germ theory, there was an active discussion about the agents of infection. It was debated whether bacteria caused diseases or whether diseases produced bacteria; the existence of disease-causing microbes smaller [End Page 23] than bacteria was hypothesized, but viruses had yet to be seen; and germs were often thought to be those viruses, the "seeds" from which bacteria formed.6 Hence, most of what we think of today as contagious diseases were then called zymotic diseases, since they were produced by the "fermentation" of germs.7 The transmission of disease, especially tuberculosis, was generally thought to be through human secretions (usually sputum), contaminated air, particulate airborne matter (especially dust), sawdust, and clothing.8 Such theories were discussed not only in the medical literature of the day but in gentlemen's magazines, women's domestic penny magazines, and two journals in which Joyce first published his work, The Fortnightly Review and The Irish Homestead.9 Alfred Hillier's 1902 essay in the Fortnightly Review summarizes, in everyday terms, the medical concerns of the day:

The mere presence of a phthisical [tubercular] patient does not cause any appreciable risk. The channel of conveyance is the expectoration or sputum of the consumptive. . . . These sputa, allowed to dry in some dark dusty corner of a platform, passage, room, railway carriage, factory, or hospital, then become pulverised and are blown about in the atmosphere. It is air thus contaminated with these germs in suspension which is responsible for sowing the seed. It is true months, even years may elapse before the "plant" tuberculosis is visible.


It was estimated that approximately one-third to one-half of postmortem examinations showed evidence of at least traces of tuberculosis, even if tuberculosis was not the cause of death. Thus, in Joyce's day, though 10-15 percent of the world's population died of consumption, a far greater number harbored and spread the disease.10

In "Telemachus," Buck Mulligan remarks to the old milkwoman about the miasma of the Dublin environment: "If we could live on good food like that, he said to her somewhat loudly, we wouldn't have the country full of rotten teeth and rotten guts. Living in a bogswamp, eating cheap food...


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