C19 Bacteriology & Literature: “Our Microbes”

T. Mitchell Prudden. The Story of Bacteria and Their Relations to Health and Disease (1889).

I merge my backgrounds in microbiology and literary studies in my book project, “Our Microbes: Imagining Human Interdependence with Bacteria in American Literature, Science, and Culture, 1880-1920.” I argue that, in making microbes visible, bacteriology prompted diverse imaginative modes to accommodate and make sense of the microbial world. Whereas scholars such as Laura Otis and Nancy Tomes have traced literary and cultural responses to anxiety about contagion, this project examines a powerful counternarrative in which the microbial world may be harnessed and put to use by individuals and industries. My analysis of literary texts, bacteriology textbooks, diaries, scientific articles, newspapers, and popular periodicals demonstrates that Americans mitigated the perceived threat of microbes by narrating them as personified characters capable of assisting human endeavors. In so doing, authors and bacteriologists both extended agency to microbes and domesticated them into an increasingly diverse and interwoven world. Real and imagined relations to the microbial world—from employing microbial labor in the fermentation industries to imaginatively partnering with microbes in fiction—offered alternative ways of seeing human relationships across national, racial, or class divisions, even if only imaginatively. Transatlantic writers like H. G. Wells, Mark Twain, and Alice James drew on and critiqued the optimistic narrative emerging from bacteriology and brought it to bear on their representations of the human world.

A portion of the project that considers Mark Twain’s later fiction alongside contemporaneous American bacteriologist Herbert W. Conn appeared as “Microbial Perspectives: Mark Twain’s Imaginative Experiment in Ethics” in Literature and Medicine in 2019.

Collaborative Health Humanities Research

With Jane Thrailkill and Jordynn Jack, I founded the HHIVE Lab (Health and Humanities: An Interdisciplinary Venue for Exploration), one of the first labs of its kind, in 2015. In the lab, we designed interdisciplinary projects that investigate the narratives that shape local individuals’ experience of health and disability, hosted monthly Health Humanities Grand Rounds, and served as a hub for interdisciplinary research and teaching. You can learn more about HHIVE research projects by watching this short video.

In HHIVE, I regularly mentor graduate and undergraduate students as they experiment with interdisciplinary research methods and collaborative practices that are rare in humanities departments. You can read more about my experience integrating collaborative research in health humanities teaching in the Journal of Medical Humanities article that I co-authored with Sarah Ann Singer, Jennifer Edwell, Jordynn Jack, and Jane Thrailkill, “Advancing Pre-Health Humanities as Intensive Research Practice: Principles and Recommendations from a Cross-Divisional Baccalaureate Setting” (2017) here.

Students and faculty discuss the Falls Narrative Study and other research projects in the HHIVE Lab.

Jane Thrailkill, Kym Weed, Sue Coppola, and Molly Brewer at the Wellcome Library after presenting Falls Narrative Study research at the CHCI Medical Humanities Summer Institute at King’s College London, June 2016

With collaborators in the Department of English & Comparative Literature and the Division of Occupational Therapy, including Molly C. Brewer, Sue Coppola, Jordynn Jack, and Jane Thrailkill, I designed and implemented the Falls Narrative Study, a human-subjects research project that paired health humanities students with older adults to elicit written narratives about falling down. Falling is recognized as pivotal event in the lives of older adults, often marking the transitional moment where activity is curtailed, and at times, living independently gives way to assisted or nursing home living. Yet, research on falling has historically been framed in terms of objective risk factors like environment and medications. While these studies offer important information about the mechanics and causes of falls, they have not sought to identify the personal experience of falling, recovering from a fall, and living with a risk of falling. In short, most falls research does not examine first-person phenomenological accounts of how older adults themselves narrate their experiences and perceptions about the risk of falling; nor does it investigate how expressing their memories, feelings, and beliefs in narrative form may influence older adults’ feelings of self-efficacy, safety, and well being. The Falls Narrative Study takes seriously the narratives of older adults and the importance of narrative structure in understanding how older adults make meaning out of a fall experience.