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

, 328 pages

11 halftones, 4 line drawings

May 2006



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

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.

David S. Barnes is an associate professor of history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Barnes's detailed and scholarly account is persuasive. "

"Barnes argues convincingly that the development of public health in nineteenth-century France is best understood in terms of the integration of scientific hypotheses within broadly accepted cultural frameworks. His insightful reading of the literature on disgust offers new insights into the social and economic history of Third Republic France."

"A well-developed study in medically related social history, it tells an intriguing tale and prompts us to ask how our own cultural contexts affect our views and actions regarding environmental and infections scourges here and now."

"Both a captivating story and a sophisticated historical study. Kudos to Barnes for this valuable and insightful book that both physicians and historians will enjoy."

"A remarkable contribution to the field of nineteenth-century studies."

"A very worthy addition."

"Exemplary study... The argument of this book rests on an interesting amalgam of insights from critical theorists and social scientists."


"The book's relevance to modern-day medical concerns will make it appealing to nurses, public health experts, and medical professionals in general."

"David Barnes wallows in filth to very good purpose... The Great Stink of Paris demonstrates in exemplary fashion the value of complicating medical-historical issues by lifting our vision above ideological and narrowly social concerns so as to explore the broader cultural context of medical ideas and practices."

"In less than a generation, Barnes demonstrates in this intelligent and beautifully argued book, a new consensus on the causes and mechanisms of disease."

"Barnes does a splendid job of depicting public anxieties about the stench that overwhelmed Parisians in 1880, and of tracing the campaign by government officials and physicians to respond to these concerns during the following two decades. His book makes an important contribution to both urban history and medical history through its recalibration to both urban history and medical history through its recalibration of the history of public health."

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