Our book today is Theodor Rosebury’s fantastic, hideous, nightmare-inducing 1969 classic, Life on Man, which is broadly a study of dirt in all its incarnations and minutely a study of Rosebury’s speciality: the horrifying, squirming, chewing, crawling, infinitely reproducing bestiary of tiny creatures that live on the human body. Anybody who read the pertinent chapter of Cheryl Mendelsohn’s magnificent 2005 Home Comforts will no doubt recall the stomach-churning sensation of queasy elevator-drop that accompanied her every turn into similarly nauseating subject matters (why turn down your sheets in the morning? To give the pint of sweat you ooze every night a chance to evaporate). But whereas Mendelsohn takes us to creepy-crawly land and then quickly takes us elsewhere (to curtain fabrics, or toilet paper), Rosebury takes us there and then makes himself at home amongst the whole warring phyla, the groping, chewingcivilizations that live, eat, procreate, spread, and die in your stomach, on your skin, and hoo-boy, in every micro-inch of your unmentionables.

Ted Rosebury’s life-long speciality was microbiology. He literally wrote the book on creatures whose indigenous habitat is the human body, the biosphere of homo sapiens. And since he was a dedicated, professional scientist, he was also necessarily something of a crackpot, as evidenced in the opening salvo of this, his most popular (and prize-winning!) book, in which he rails against a TV commercial advertising a household spray that kills millions of germs:

If you are healthy and your teeth are clean, unless you have been eating onions, your mouth doesn’t smell. If it does you should see a dentist. Perfectly healthy young adult mouths contain germs by the billion – which means, of course, by the thousand million. No mouth is without them. Even if something really did kill them by the million it would be doing only one-thousandth of the job. But as it kills a few germs it also damages the cells of your mouth an interferes with other things provided by nature that need no help in keeping your mouth healthy – including some of the microbes, which destroy other microbes. Not only are you wasting your money on this beautiful rubbish, but it would not be worth using if you got it for nothing. It does harm without doing good. At best the harm is not noticed, and you may settle for a clean sensation. You may mask an odor, but if it didn’t come from something you ate, the odor should be treated, not masked.

Only a human – with the typically vestigial human sense of smell – could assert that the human mouth in its natural state doesn’t smell bad (he makes the same outlandish claim about other human locations), although like most crackpots, he has a point: commercial products promising germ-free cleanliness are usually promising the moon and all its riches while delivering nothing of the kind. Rosebury’s beloved microbes are, in the end, an invincible part of human life:

A verse I remember from my youth, called “an ode on the antiquity of microbes,” tells us that

Had ’em.

Which puts it succinctly, if metaphorically. We abandon all pretensions to the contrary. They are all over our skin, burrowing under what we see as the surface. They nestle in every fold and crevice. They penetrate the nose and the moist urinary-sexual orifices, but not very deeply. The lungs, bladder, and uterus normally have no microbes. The eye has very few. But the alimentary tube from inside the lips all the way down is pretty densely settled; and down at the nether end of it are the largest numbers of all. We are not born with microbes. They come to us from outside, mainly from other people. It looks as though we get them through the same intimate loving contacts that we need to grow on, that we could least afford to do without.

Our author was a lifelong passionate reader, and Life on Man is liberally sprinkled with literary allusions and germ- and dirt-related quotes from the Western canon. There’s a playful erudition in these pages that’s almost never seen in popular science-writing of this caliber (although a watered-down joviality is nowadays the lingua franca of the whole enterprise), and that’s damn lucky, because if our guide weren’t making us smile on a regular basis through this ghastly tour, I doubt there’s a lay reader in the world who’ have the (heavily-populated) stomach to finish it.

Still, the readers who do finish it will have an utterly fascinating experience to show for their troubles. “Thus are we populated,” Rosebury says, laconically – and you’ll never thereafter forget it.

  • http://johncotter.net/ JC

    Was he talking about mouthwash? Is mouthwash bad for me?

© 2007-2018, Steve Donoghue