Full episode
112: Ladies and Germs


The story of a White House scandal from the year 1881. President James Garfield lay dying of a gunshot wound during that summer. But because our nation is crazy when it comes to the President, and because the White House is a national movie screen onto which we project a whole array of fears and misplaced idealism, Americans projected one of the big fears of the day onto Garfield. Namely, the fear of sewer gas. Rumors abounded that Garfield was not dying from the bullet in his back, but from vapors rising from the antiquated White House toilets. It became so serious that an independent expert was brought in to give a bipartisan assessment of the problem. The Senate voted to spend $300,000 to build a new White House, a sanitary one, right next to the original White House. And it would be nice to believe that all of this was the kind of hysteria that was only possible before the germ theory of disease was proven. But in fact, now we know how diseases are transmitted. Now that we know that there's no such thing as "sewer gas." But still, when it comes to germs, and our fear of disease, we are still irrational beings. Ira talks with Nancy Tomes, author of a history on the subject, The Gospel of Germs. (6 minutes)