Making germs real
: germs, the germ sciences, and the British workplace, c.1880-1940

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis looks at the impact of germ theories of disease on the British workplace from c.1880- 1940. Particular attention is paid to the ways in which bacteriological knowledge was translated across different institutional boundaries. Through a careful reconstruction of how workers gained access to new understandings about germs via a combination of both formal and informal learning, I show how different pedagogical contexts presented a variety of opportunities and methods for workers to make sense of the effect of microbes on their working lives. In particular I show how germs were presented through familiar science narratives, and that the familiar germ subsequently appeared in a variety of guises to demonstrate to British workers the value of new types of microbial management, or germ work. Examining the strengths and weaknesses of these new bacillocentric narratives is in turn critical to understanding the subsequent successes and failures of the bacteriological sciences as they operated beyond the walls of the laboratory. Incorporating previous concerns into how the British medical practitioners began to understand and incorporate bacteriology into their working lives through ‘germ practices’, the following work shows how such concerns and approaches were not just limited to the medical world. Using the operating theatre, the Post Office, and the dairy, the Chapters that follow show how British workers learnt about, understood, and worked with germs through a variety of new techniques and technologies. From nurses to postal sorters, I show how knowledge about bacteria was made sense of in relation to different kinds of occupational cultures, priorities, and material practices. I then address the successes of this venture by looking at how workers both did and did not incorporate new types of germ-conscious labour into their working lives. The result is a more sensitive and nuanced account of how germs were made real amongst a variety of both specialist and lay workers in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain.
Date of Award1 Feb 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorAnna Maerker (Supervisor) & David Edgerton (Supervisor)

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