A remarkable feat of textual synthesis, The Germ of an Idea: Contagionism, Religion, and Society in Britain, 1660-1730 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) traces the complex narrative of emerging medical theories of disease and their relationship to physicians’ fractured, fractious religious and social alliances in this period. Margaret DeLacy, a Harvard- and Princeton-trained independent scholar who has written extensively about medical history and contagionism, acknowledges drawing on “a reference base of thousands of books and articles” (xix) over decades of research to answer a single question: Why were medical thinkers “diverted” from pursuing “the germ-theory of disease” in the early-eighteenth century, when clearly several had earlier amassed evidence that “should have made possible the formulation” (iv) of germ-theory developed only much later, in the nineteenth century? The answer is neither simple nor straightforward, but DeLacy tells the story in nine meticulously annotated chapters, each helpfully structured with clearly-marked introductions and conclusions.
Grounding the reader, as well as showing what may have precipitated this perceived lull in scientific progress, Chapter 1 features a historical survey of contagionism prior to 1660. The belief that disease spreads through some contagion reaches back to classical times, although the notion that these contagions might be living agents remained uncommon in the mid-seventeenth century. In England during the mid-seventeenth century (Chapter 2) major religious and social changes during the Restoration caused abruptions in medical education and professions. As part of the Clarendon Code (1661), religious Nonconformists were denied degrees from Cambridge and Oxford. Only MDs from these universities were permitted to become Fellows of the London College of Physicians—the Galenic institution that held the legal authority to regulate physicians in and around London. Thus, Dissenters were forced to seek medical degrees abroad and were prevented (in theory) from reaching the top of their profession in Britain. Continue reading “Book Review: The Germ of an Idea”