The Discovery of Germs Changed American Life, Especially Parenting. Will COVID-19 do the Same?

Historians in the News
tags: family history, public health, germ theory


One of the most poignant side effects from the discovery of pathogens was on child-rearing. By the end of the 19th century, mothers and other primary caretakers became cautious about cuddling or touching their children for fear of breeding deadly infections. Parents, heeding the advice of physicians and even the U.S. government, adopted a style of care that was chilly and aloof.

The new approach to sanitation helped reduce frightening levels of infant mortality. In 1870, 175 of every 1,000 infants died in their first year of life; by 1930, the number decreased to 75. Yet the hands-off approach that kept children safe from germs also ran counter to the instinctual need for physical affection that all primates, including humans, have. And its absence produced damaging consequences of its own.

“I found these just heartbreaking stories about mothers who were afraid to touch their children, to show physical affection to them,” said Nancy Tomes, a professor of history at Stony Brook University in New York and the author of “The Gospel of Germs: Men, Women and the Microbe in American Life.”

All that would shift again by the middle of the 20th century, when psychologists such as John Bowlby and Harry Harlow exposed the potentially traumatic side effects of remote parenting on child development.

Bowlby, through his work with troubled children, and Harlow, using baby monkeys, demonstrated the evolutionary necessity of physical touch and affection. Their work also pointed the way forward for new child-centered parenting theories such as those popularized by Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton that rejected the sterile doctrines of the past.

“It is heartbreaking to think that … a certain generation of people [had] that kind of fear of touch,” Tomes said. “God knows what it did to their sex lives.”


Read entire article at Washington Post

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