Dr. Theodor Rosebury discusses his book "Life on Man"
BROADCAST: 1969 | DURATION: 00:57:40
Dr. Theodor Rosebury dissects cultural ideas around cleanliness and shame as presented in his book "Life of Man".
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Studs Terkel How can I convince every literate man and woman to buy Dr. Rosebury's delightful book? It is sane, elegant, and informative, a joy to read, making elegant ripples that go on widening long after the words have dropped in the mind. This is the beginning of a rave review by John Leonard of "The New York Times" about our guest's book, Dr. Theodor Rosebury, a very distinguished, and most unconventional bacteriologist, as well as observer of the human scene. His new book is called "Life on Man" and Viking has published, and John Leonard in "The New York Times" goes on to speak of this book. He compares it with Norman O. Brown's much talked about and discussed excellent book, "Life Against Death", but writes, John Leonard, "This has more wit, more ease about it," and it's "Life on Man". The very phrase itself, Ted Rosebury, Dr. Rosebury, the phrase "Life on Man," the meaning of it.
Theodor Rosebury It's a tantalizer, is it? I can see that in your face.
Theodor Rosebury I like the way you smile as you say it.
Studs Terkel Because we're referring what, referring now to the microbes that, not infest our body you imply so much, as inhabit us.
Theodor Rosebury Inhabit us is the right word. Not infest, not infect, really. They just live on us. It started out years ago as a lecture which I called "Life on the Planet Man", but for the book I dropped those words, especially because everybody talks about life on planets now, and I was sure they'd get the idea.
Studs Terkel Well, suppose we keep this, not so much as a question/answer as just conversation generally.
Theodor Rosebury Sure.
Studs Terkel The book itself, you a bacteriologist, immediately, at the very opening, the preface, you talk about the television commercial and how we're becoming the deodorized neurotics and we're told how we offend, how cleanliness, beyond Godliness, quite obviously.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Yes. Cleanliness has become a fetish, and, of course, a very profitable one to certain people. And, so, we've become slaves to it. Cleanliness is a good thing. So is hygiene a good thing. So is sanitation a good thing, but one can have too much of a good thing.
Studs Terkel Well, could we dwell on this a bit? Because you connect this also with the evil, the shame of body. The book, by the way, concerns itself not just with science, with--the book, as John Leonard says further in the review, "it deals with literary figures, with Rabelais and with Swift, and with"--the very nature in Shakespeare and the nature of our language and what is happening, how we're diluting it all, cleansing it, really, just as the body. This has been your theme throughout this book.
Theodor Rosebury That's right. That's right. That's right. My work has dealt with microbes through the greater part of my life, and I've been interested in these particular microbes, perhaps especially, these so-called normal microbes, these microbes that in the normal course of events don't do us any harm, although they can, as I'm careful to point out, and I've also had something to do with the opposite end of the spectrum, with the microbes that cause the most severe, most active, most highly infectious diseases that we know. So I have a kind of balance here, you know? And I think that one can't really understand either group without understanding the other. And we tend to go overboard, most of us, because we know that microbes cause disease, and so we think we have a scientific basis for associating them with ideas of dirt and filth and nastiness of various kinds, and I think that the record shows that this just isn't true.
Studs Terkel Could we dwell on this, Dr. Rosebury, the history of it, this, your book, of course, does, too, very wittily, [you mainly? humanely?] this matter. In a way, is your book the opposite number, say, of Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring"? She speaks the balance of nature, and you're speaking of balance of life on man himself.
Theodor Rosebury Well, they're two related things. I wouldn't say that I'm in any sense opposite to her, certainly not opposed to her--
Studs Terkel No, no, no, I meant, no, no, what I meant was you're on the same wavelength.
Theodor Rosebury Yes, I would think so, yes. I mean, we're both dealing with--
Theodor Rosebury Yeah, she's with the danger of insecticides. What is called ecology.
Studs Terkel Yes.
Theodor Rosebury You know? They're both aspects of the same question. And actually one of the things, one of the troubles, one of the problems we get into in our own bodies is that when we disturb these normal things that live on us, we are likely to do harm, just as we, man, does harm to the earth by disturbing the ecology of life that lives on it. Everybody knows something about this, but most people don't know anything about the harm we can do to ourselves, potentially, by the use of antiseptics and anti-microbial drugs used excessively, and so on.
Studs Terkel Let's dwell on this, We should point out that Professor Theodor Rosebury, aside from being a witty man, is Emeritus Professor of bacteriology of Washington University, St. Louis, and written a number of works on the subject, a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The matter of microbiology and, obviously, this deals at this moment it concerns itself to a great extent with commerce, doesn't it, with the fact that there's so many drug companies, the drugs that we have, and the antiseptics--
Theodor Rosebury Well, a lot of money is being made out of our fear of germs associated with our fear of dirt and all the rest of it. It seems to be increasing more and more. I happen to have a note from a recent issue of "The New York Times" which I try to lead fairly religiously, this actually comes from the business page of the "Times", the daily "Times", it's headed "Advertising: The Skin Game with Aerosol", and may I read just a little paragraph in it?
Studs Terkel Sure.
Theodor Rosebury It comes way down in the bottom of the article. "This entire area of personal products, deodorants and mouthwashes, is one where advertising can take advantage of the consumer's insecurities and really play on their emotions. It would be nice if agencies created with care." Now that's "The New York Times", you know, saying that, and I couldn't agree more. This is part of the burden in my own book.
Studs Terkel But we have to come to the basis of it. Now, there's something here that makes us--you're implying, of course, that there are some microbes that hurt. You--are these called pathogens?
Theodor Rosebury Right. They produce disease. Pathology or disease. They are pathogens. Yes.
Studs Terkel But there are microbes that we need.
Theodor Rosebury That's right. That's right. And by and large they're different microbes. By and large, but not absolutely, because even the microbes that live on us and that we need can sometimes do us harm when we let ourselves be damaged in other ways. By poor diet, for example, by starvation, by vitamin deficiency, by other kinds of chronic long-continued damage to our tissues. When this sort of thing happens, the microbes that normally are either harmless or actually beneficial are able to dig in and produce disease.
Studs Terkel This connected with the idea of tox and anti-toxin that we talk about in medicine? And a microbe can kill other microbes, is that the idea, that a--
Theodor Rosebury Well, no. I'm sorry, Studs, but those are two different points that you raise, and neither one of them is very closely related to the point that we're concerned with, I don't know whether we should get into it.
Studs Terkel No.
Theodor Rosebury The fact is that people talk loosely about toxins, toxins are very specific things, protein poisons which are produced by only a few, only three or four, pathogenic bacteria. They're not nearly as widespread as most people think. And I think maybe it's better not to get into the whole subject.
Studs Terkel But the microbes that are salubrious, this is the point.
Theodor Rosebury Right.
Studs Terkel That they're our body.
Theodor Rosebury Yeah.
Studs Terkel And you go back to begin--you, first of all, you say that maybe the young hippies today are trying to tell us something.
Theodor Rosebury Right.
Studs Terkel As Freud did, too.
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Studs Terkel Can we dwell on this a little?
Theodor Rosebury Well, I think that the hippies, of course, are rebelling against the adults, the older people in general, because they are coming to recognize, I'm trying to interpret what they're doing, no doubt you've had them talk for themselves, and I'm sure they could do it better. But they see the hypocrisy in the world in which they live. They see the lies, they see the senseless things that the older people who run the world are doing, and they're finding every way, I think, they can to show their disagreement, their rebellion against it. And frequently, of course, they go overboard. You know, they go to extremes. I don't approve of their filth. I don't approve of many of the things that they do. But I do try to understand what they're saying and doing. And frankly, I would rather see one of these kids with his long hair and his jeans and his loose unkempt clothing than some of these conforming youngsters with their carefully manicured haircuts and their very proper virtually uniform type of clothes, and their shined shoes and all the rest of it. I think the hippies are the healthier of the two. Although I would like to see something maybe in between?
Studs Terkel But in your book, again we come to this theme about this matter of cleanliness, the fetish we have--
Theodor Rosebury Right.
Studs Terkel And you dwell on this.
Theodor Rosebury Right.
Studs Terkel Whence this fetish, because it is that.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Yes. And I think that for curious reasons it goes back into our Jewish Christian heritage, and especially, I think, to the fourth century or so A.D., the time of St. Augustine, even though that was the time when men, especially maybe Christians and Christian saints, were probably the dirtiest people that ever lived. Nevertheless, I think ideas of cleanliness have grown out of the conception of original sin that developed during that period, as you know at least as well as I do, probably better. This, I try to trace this whole idea to its origin during that period and in that time, and I think it has developed through the years into a concept of cleanliness, and this has been especially given a push by the great advances that have been made in public health as a result of bacteriology during the last two decades of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century, and it's natural for human beings to exaggerate things, to simplify things, not to let them be too complicated, and to grasp at the idea that if bacteria hurt us, then all bacteria hurt us, you know? And if we can be, we can get sick and die from drinking water that is polluted with human feces, as we can, there's no question about that, then human feces must be bad stuff, always, and something to be avoided, and dirt in general must be something always to be avoided. But these propositions are simply not true. They have become foisted upon us. And as I said a moment ago, people have taken advantage of them because it's possible to make a lot of money out of these ideas, capitalizing on the fear that people have, the irrational fear of many of these things. And, so, I think we've gone wrong, we've gone overboard and we need to recover our balance.
Studs Terkel So two things have happened. First of all, going way back to the Judeo-Christian, perhaps, sense of sin, the body, then, being ugly--
Theodor Rosebury Right.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Yes. Yes.
Studs Terkel Contact you point this out, contact makes for micro--the warm contact, whether it be sexual or otherwise, see, and also the question of commerce entering into it and taking advantage of this fear. So this is the, sort of a double thread throughout your book, with the various literary references, too.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Yes. And this whole notion of sin and contact, as you say, the hippies, they don't call themselves that anymore, whatever they do call themselves, though, we kind of recognize the group. There are various groups. They reject this absolutely. They say, "Loving contact between human beings is the most precious thing we have. How dare you tell us that it's wrong, that it's bad, that it's sinful, when so many other things that we see around us do actually produce contamination and pollution and wretchedness and damage on the earth's surface?" They see this, they don't need a bacteriologist to tell them this.
Studs Terkel 'Cause you raise the question, who does more harm? You know, the wild boy, whoever he might [belong at?], playing the banjo, or the ad man or that pretty girl speaking the beauties of a certain kind of cigarette? Who does more harm? The person with some microbes on him? Salubrious microbes or the polluted industry, who pollutes the things?
Theodor Rosebury I have another item.
Studs Terkel Who's more harmful, who offends more is the way you put it.
Theodor Rosebury Right. I have another item from the newspapers from a recent piece that comes from England, where they're talking, English Parliament is urged to repeal most of British laws against pornography. Another little piece in here says the committee found that among those who favored censorship, hardly anyone said they personally had been corrupted by an obscene work. Nobody seems to have met such a person, the poll says. This, you see lots of this, this is common.
Studs Terkel Well, throughout, by the way, the book of Dr. Rosebury, Theodor Rosebury, is one that you will find, as John Leonard of "The New York Times" said, not only a witty and exciting book to read and very humorous at the same time biting and pungent is one that almost is a reply to all the charges--the committees investigating violence on TV. No doubt there is that, of course, but no one ever investigates the violence of commercials, do they? That is, the violence that it's committed to our spirit.
Theodor Rosebury Yes, well, the word, as I try to define it fairly carefully in my book comes down to obscenity. This is the real meaning of the word, an offense against decency, and the real offenses against decency have nothing to do with skin or sex or human products or secretions or whatnot. They have to do with the sort of thing that is being done against us, by ourselves, against people by other people for their own benefit, for their own sake. These are the obscene things, and certain forms of advertising, not all advertising, you know, advertising is a good thing. I don't think we could get along without it. I'm not a bigot I hope on this subject, but certain forms of advertising that are deceptive, that are done for the prime purpose of exploiting the fears of people in order to put money into somebody's pocket, this, to me, is a prime example of obscenity.
Studs Terkel Of course. It demeans when you're talking also about the various, you may go into it now, you show that washing one's mouth, that salt and water can do it just as well.
Theodor Rosebury Well, you don't even need the salt.
Studs Terkel And you sometimes also--
Theodor Rosebury We think nothing of drinking water, you know, we let ordinary plain water go through our mouths, and, yet, we're afraid just to wash out our mouths with plain water for fear that it will do something or other, and it really is nonsensical, it's irrational. Water is all I ever use.
Studs Terkel The book itself opens with "Tom Jones". The book opens with the celebrated eating scene with Albert Finney and Joyce Redman, a scene, and you say here the camera did something, you as a bacteriologist saw something.
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Studs Terkel Quite obviously.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Yes. I could see the camera in my imagination zooming down on the spaces between the gums and the teeth. Maybe if you let me read it. "I was able in my mind's eye to zero in on the little fleshy crevices around Tom's and Jenny's teeth as they ate their meal and to see the turmoil of microbic life there. The spirochetes and vibrios in furious movement, the thicker corkscrew-like spirilla gliding back and forth, and the more sluggish or quiet chains and clusters and colonies of the [cilian coxae?] massed around or boiling between detached epithelial scales and the fibers and debris of cells and food particles. Like the great and beautiful animals in whose mouths they lived, these, too, are organisms, living things, and I could imagine them quite like Tom and Jenny making the most of the sudden accession of nourishment after a long fast."
Studs Terkel Now then, as you describe this scene so vividly here, not all these microbes are harmful to Tom and Jenny and us, is this the implication of the two?
Theodor Rosebury These microbes are found in every mouth. They are found in every healthy mouth. Their presence in the mouth are entirely compatible with continued good health, but, one has to introduce a but, because they can do damage, they can do damage. They are undoubtedly the microbic agents of diseases like pyorrhea, and trench mouth and things of that sort. One has to understand that these two things are not incompatible, because these diseases depend, as I'm careful to explain in the latter part of the book, on certain conditions that lead up to this development of microorganisms and the damage that is done by them. I think everybody is really prepared for this kind of an idea. We recognize that if we are strong and healthy we can go out in the cold weather and brave the cold and get along fine in it or even be stimulated by it. It does us good, but if we're weak and debilitated, that same cold weather can kill us.
Studs Terkel So it depends then, the question of balance, the nature of the body, but you're also saying that the arbitrary, am I right in assuming this, that the arbitrary elimination of all these microbes can possibly be harmful, too, under some circumstances.
Theodor Rosebury Well, we know this from what we call germ-free animals. You want me to get into that?
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Nowadays it's a commonplace in laboratories to have animals that are taken from their mothers aseptically by what is called Caesarean section. Nearly everybody knows what that is. That's the way Julius Caesar is supposed to have been born, you know. But this is done under strictly, really strictly, aseptic conditions so that there are no microbes present at all. And then the young are maintained under these conditions. Nowadays, this is so common that laboratories can actually buy these animals and have them shipped from different breeding concerns and arrive under germ-free conditions and lots of laboratories are working with them, and we're learning more and more about them. And by and large we know that they're rather miserable creatures, that they miss these microbes in various ways, they have to be fed very carefully balanced diets containing much larger amounts of more vitamins than they would need in the normal course of events, because normally their bacteria, especially in their intestinal tracts, make vitamins that they can use in their nourishment. They have, perhaps the most outstanding thing about them, is that the normal immunity mechanism fails to develop in the absence of the bacteria. It is apparently the normal bacteria that stimulate the early development of the immunity mechanism not only against these bacteria themselves, but against most other infectious agents too, and in the absence of the stimulus, the antibody-forming cells, the antibodies themselves are just not there, or when they are there in traces, as usually happens, this, too, can be traced to the fact that some of the dead bacterial cells are almost impossible to get rid of, they're present in food, so they're not alive but they're dead. But even as dead cells, they stimulate this antibody production. There are lots of other things. The form of the gastrointestinal tract is the musculature of the gastrointestinal tract, especially the cecum, is dependent on the presence of a mass of microorganisms there, and in the absence of the microorganisms, it's weak and flabby and it spreads out to fill the whole abdomen. Even the heart, even the heart for reasons that are not at all clear, we don't always understand these things but we observe them, even the heart doesn't function as well in the germ-free animal as it does in the normal animal.
Studs Terkel So Dr. Rosebury, as you're talking, the germ-free animal or like the baby under glass, or that thing wrapped in cellophane is obviously more vulnerable to "the slings and arrows" of any outrageous fortune.
Theodor Rosebury Correct. We have to live in the world in order to be able to live in the world. We could not live under a glass jar and expect to come out into the world and to brave, as you say, as Shakespeare says, "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune."
Studs Terkel By the way, you mention that the book deals with literature as well. We'll come to that in a moment, what happens to our language. You connect, by the way, what is delightful about your book and that John Leonard found equally so, is that you connect the bacteria, the body, but also the way we talk, our language, our literature, the bowdlerization, and, thus also, we dilute ourselves psychically as well as physically. Is this is more or less the thread of your book, too.
Theodor Rosebury Yes, yes, yes, yes. I think part of this process of fooling ourselves through the years in the areas as cleanliness and Puritanism generally, has to do very intimately and in a very important way, with the use of words. Of course, this can be traced back, I think, directly to ideas of sacrilege, the whole concept of profanity is basically a religious one, and its roots actually go back into pre-Christian times, into notions of magic. But they have persisted and they're still very important. It's only recently that a congressional committee withheld, you must know this, withheld funds from a traveling drama group because of the use of certain dirty words in some of the stuff that they were going to put out. And, of course, colleges are in trouble all the time, and they're rebelling against this now because they say these are good English words, we can use their Latin equivalents with complete impunity. Why shouldn't we be able to use the good English words. After all, we are, our language is English, is it not? They don't say it in these words, but this is what they imply. And this is part of the area of revolt. Well, I try to support this because it's hard, perhaps, to trace this back to bacteria and, yet, I try to do it. My ideas grow out of my knowledge of bacteria and they tend in the same direction. I hope I'm giving these kids some additional ammunition for what they're saying.
Studs Terkel You see, it's funny how we go for the euphemism rather than for the actual--
Theodor Rosebury Right. Right.
Studs Terkel And of course, you admire, you speak of Rabelais, who was a physician.
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Studs Terkel As well as monk, was he not, too?
Theodor Rosebury He was a physician and a priest. Yes. Yes. Indeed.
Studs Terkel And Rabelais, of course, you find, to you, the essence of the humor, the words, you see--
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Studs Terkel And in Shakespeare.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Yes. These people spoke the common speech. It was their purpose, we know, to speak to everybody. They did not simply speak to the elite, to the elect. This is something that happened at least in the English-speaking world somewhere around the Puritan revolution, somewhere around the revolution in England, when the distinction between the aristocracy and the lower classes became much more marked, when there was a return in this respect to ideas that had been common during feudalism and we were still suffering from this today, even in this country where we have no aristocracy, but where we're all trying to behave like aristocrats. We're all trying to be members of the upper class and looking down on people who are not members of our class, even though the whole notion is nonsense from a basic point of view.
Studs Terkel By the way, as you're talking, I don't know if you're aware, this is interesting, even this very moment, this day, this year, this time, you find many blue-collar people obsessed, overwhelmed by fears and seeking status, with little education, who rarely, publicly, will use profanity, will use a euphemism. Almost like Damon Runyon [hoob?] you see, use the euphemism, whereas someone who feels more secure, who's had more of an academic thing, will use the profanity or the swear word, and very often you will find this round about, it's kind of sad. And you encounter this almost daily, you see. The very thing you're talking about.
Theodor Rosebury It's a kind of disease, I would think, of society and it's perfectly true. Some of these people, these blue-collar people, as you call them, who are virtually never heard to use profanity in public will use it quite freely when the men are together, you know, in the bar or in the locker room or wherever they happen to be. And this, of course, undoubtedly applies to the police themselves, who are the first to react, usually, to the use of profanity by others, especially youngsters, but who use it themselves freely in the presence of their own brothers.
Studs Terkel Coming back to this very theme, the one that this--again we come back to a sense of sin. This is all connected. Back to--can I use a phrase? These swear words that are taboo are really bacterial words, if I can use this phrase.
Theodor Rosebury You're right. You're right.
Studs Terkel No, I mean the bacteria that is good.
Studs Terkel Eliminated. Yes. And that is necessary for the body. So these words may be good for our own soul.
Theodor Rosebury Well, I think that whether they're good or not, they're certainly not harmful. I would agree with this fella who says that nobody is, there's no evidence that anybody has ever been hurt by what we conventionally call obscenity, that anybody has ever committed a crime or whatnot as a result of reading a book. There just is no evidence for this.
Studs Terkel To go back then, your book, we're going back and forth concerning this book that has a variety of chapters dealing with mythology, with history, with literature, as well as science, bacteriology, there are significant comments you make that the man who invented the microscope, who first made us aware, who saw the germs--
Theodor Rosebury Leeuwenhoek.
Studs Terkel The Dutchman, Leeuwenhoek, we are--the kids know of Columbus's discovery of America, but not of Leeuwenhoek's discovery of bacteria.
Theodor Rosebury Well, he was a little bit dirty, evidently. You see, he himself had no shame, and I, as you know, I make quite a bit of that word "shame." I think it's something that has been overdone. Leeuwenhoek didn't have it. He saw these microbes through his microscopes, which he made himself. He was the first one, as far as we know, ever to see them. It was as though, and it wasn't true, it was true in fact, that he discovered a new world, and he was as delighted with it, as fascinated by it, as anyone else would be who discovered a new world, a world of living things that no one had ever seen before. Things that didn't come up through his microscope and bite him that didn't do him any harm and he had no reason in his time to assume that they would. He wasn't really interested in what they were capable of doing, not in the least, he was only interested in watching them, in describing them, in counting them, and his counting is one of the things I really marvel at in the book, because he did it with extraordinary precision. His counts are still valid today. Yes, but he--there was no--nothing hindered him from doing this. But he recognized very quickly that when he showed some of the things he saw to other people, they were frightened by them. They were frightened by them. And they didn't react to them as he did. And, so, this notion that there can be, well, it's, of course, it's an unformed idea, that there can be danger lurking in the unknown, is, again, something that goes back to conceptions of magic and is basically ignorance, isn't it?
Studs Terkel And this is your chapter called "Taboo, Prejudice and History". This being--ignorance is fear of the unknown. And here are all these unknowns inhabiting the planet man, inhabiting each of our bodies, and Leeuwenhoek, he recognized this, and he rather welcomed it, this discovery.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Yes. Not only, of course, Leeuwenhoek looked at insects, he looked at the world around him, he looked at plants, he looked at all kinds of things in addition to his own body. He looked everywhere, and wherever he looked he found what he called animalcules: microbes, protozoa and bacteria, both.
Studs Terkel In some ways considering allowing for balance the nature of one's physical health and body, allowing some not at all harmful.
Theodor Rosebury Well, he had no idea of their harmfulness or the lack of it. It didn't concern him, they didn't hurt him because he only saw them and he had no evidence at all to suggest that they might be harmful to anyone. Apparently the idea never entered his mind.
Studs Terkel But it's a cleaning lady who looked for the microscope.
Theodor Rosebury This was in my own experience.
Studs Terkel Your own experience. Now here we come back to the question we talked about earlier, people the fear, who want status, who are unsure of those--she's--filthy, awful things. Is that what?
Theodor Rosebury Well, I don't know what she thought. All I know is, that I used her as a source of material to show to students, and I set the material from her mouth. She had pyorrhea, and I knew I could get these very things that I talked about a few moments ago, that I read about. I knew I could get them from her mouth and I set them up under the microscope as a student demonstration, and she was curious, she was interested, and she wanted to see it, and I let her see it. And as I say in the book, this was a mistake, because she recoiled from it. She was really frightened to death by it. And she went out and had all her teeth pulled out, you know. Which may have been a good thing, but I felt terrible about it because this was not the effect that I had expected or intended.
Studs Terkel We're talking to Dr. Theodor Rosebury, a bacteriologist, Professor Emeritus in bacteriology, Washington University, and his new book is called "Life on Man", that Viking has published, and it's quite remarkable. Ode on the antiquity of microbes, I can come to this, the origin, this goes pre-Darwinian, no, rather this is post-Darwinian, the thing you're talking about at [the end?] you say, "Adam had 'em," the phrase, the earliest phrase, is "Adam had 'em."
Theodor Rosebury Right.
Studs Terkel The microbes--this is beyond what Darwin had in mind, isn't it? What you're talking about now.
Theodor Rosebury Well, it's a joke.
Studs Terkel No, I'm talking now about the origin of life.
Theodor Rosebury I see. Yes. Yes.
Theodor Rosebury earth. We have, I think, every reason to believe that something like what we know today as bacteria, certain bacteria, were probably the first fully formed living things ever to inhabit the earth. This is what you mean, isn't it?
Theodor Rosebury Now. As far as Adam is concerned, it is--we needn't doubt that the first human beings to emerge on the earth had microbes on them. So Adam had 'em, if you like.
Studs Terkel Now I'm going to go back to this now, you're talking about the billions of years, the--
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Studs Terkel The idea that the earliest forms of life, the microbotic, whatever
Theodor Rosebury you talked--here. The seque-- Well, what I do is to try to, I bring that whole subject in because I'm concerned with the origin of prejudice. This is part of, I'm concerned with prejudice against microbes. I'm concerned with these fears that are so innate in us against dirt and so on. And I try to make the point that in the early days when I was young, when I was in that Columbia University in the Department of Bacteriology there at the medical school, I first ran into the work of Oparin, the Russian biochemist who made the first rather complete suggestion as to the manner in which life originated on the earth. He wrote a book which was called, "The Origin of Life". And in this book I was especially interested in the fact that he suggested that the first form of life was a microbe similar to certain microbes that we now know which lives on preformed organic matter and that he presupposed a long period of chemical evolution during which organic materials were synthesized by natural processes and accumulated because there were no living things present to break them down. This was a completely new concept at the time since, which has since come to be very widely accepted. I would say no one in biology has any serious argument against it today, but as little as 30, 35 years ago, it was not accepted at all.
Studs Terkel So this is a question of scientists having their own prejudices.
Theodor Rosebury Well, this is the point because the kind of bacterium that Oparin suggested as the primordial cell is what we recognize today as a parasite. Now, it couldn't have been a parasite then, because there was nothing for it to be parasitic on. But today these forms of life arise by a process of degeneration. They have lost many of their functions because they live on other living things and we recognize them as parasites. And I suggest that maybe more or less instinctually without really giving the matter much thought because as I say they were much more important things in those days to think about, bacteriologists rejected this notion, because who wants to be descended from a parasite? And I compared a little bit with the notions that developed after Darwin's theory when the idea was that we were descended from monkeys, and nobody liked that either, and they were both not true because it wasn't a monkey and it wasn't a parasite. It couldn't have been.
Studs Terkel As you point out, quote unquote, parasite was to some scientists what the monkey was to William Jennings Bryan.
Theodor Rosebury Right!
Studs Terkel That's interesting. So even among your own colleagues.
Theodor Rosebury Nobody is free from prejudice. I would not try to suggest that I myself am free from prejudice. Of course I'm not. We all have them. You know, they lie in different areas. But it's good sometimes to try to examine them and to try to get rid of the ones that do us harm, at least.
Studs Terkel Part Two of your book, Dr. Theodor Rosebury, our guest, the book is "Life on Man", Viking, Part Two is called "Taboo, Prejudice, History", the first sequence and it's Freud's [gold?], And you're quoting Freud in connection with this very thing, civilized man, part of which are clearly [suspension?] points, civilized men clearly embarrassed by anything that reminds them too much of their animal origin. Trying to emulate the more perfected angels, and it's this fear of--oh, he says we still have a trace of the earth, he's quoting Goethe here, which is distressing to bear, although it were of asbestos, it is not cleanly. This fear of the trace--again, the sense of shame, isn't it?
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, the notion that we are in some way related to animals must be extremely old because we have only to look around us and see how many of the things we do that animals also do. And long before there was any conception of evolution, we must have recognized our kinship to animals and, perhaps, discarded it, refused to accept it. This must have had something to do with the development of our ideas of shame.
Studs Terkel This plus the puritanism--
Theodor Rosebury Plus the Puritanism.
Studs Terkel That came into play.
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Studs Terkel And as a result of which the body itself, shame also of our body.
Theodor Rosebury Well, yes, this is the point, the negation of our bodies is the thing. We come to hate ourselves. We come to think of ourselves as dirty. We come to think of almost everything we do which is intrinsic to ourselves as dirty. We have to cover up our bodies. We have to hide them. We have to, we teach our children that they mustn't urinate in the streets, that there are certain words that they mustn't say, it's not nice, and so on and so forth. And by the time we are eight or 10 or thereabouts we have come to take these things so completely for granted that it's quite possible that many people listening to me today will wonder why I say these things and then think, well, obviously, this is true, isn't it? It must be true, we all believe it. But it isn't true, it isn't true, it isn't necessary. And I think in the long run it's not good for us that we negate ourselves, that we deny ourselves, all kinds of disease grows out of this kind of denial as Freud was one of the first to show, and I'm trying to add something to this.
Studs Terkel You dwell on that, on the Freudian observations.
Theodor Rosebury Well, I select, of course, from Freud. The particular items that are, I guess, the most general word is excremental. This word used as--what's his name, the man who wrote "Life Against Death"?
Theodor Rosebury Norman O. Brown as he puts it in the broadest sense, in fact Freud uses it in this sense, too, as applied not only to excrement but to our bodies, to their secretions, to all the parts that have to do with the body. This whole idea of denial of excrement is something that Freud recognized even though he didn't go into questions of origin as I would like him to do, he wasn't concerned with history and he wasn't in the least concerned with microbes. Even though he wrote during the period of the active development of bacteriology, but he, Freud was as he is now coming into his own, I think, during the last ten years or so and is coming to be recognized as, at the very least, an extraordinarily shrewd and careful observer who not only set down many of the things that he saw with tremendous understanding but in his own terms related them to events in folklore and literature and so on, all this quite aside from his system of therapy, on which I say nothing. I'm not as I say in one point a psychoanalyst, either amateur or professional. This is not my field at all, but Freud as a descriptive psychologist, as a person who told us some of these things was certainly one of the first, if not the first, to do it, and has given us something that it is now very much worthwhile to go back to and read and study carefully.
Studs Terkel It's funny, as you talk about the word "excrement" and the anal eroticism that's involved, the orderly--the holding in, the keeping in, like keeping money, too. The word "filthy lucre."
Theodor Rosebury That's right. And, of course it was Freud who pointed out that the relationship between filth and money, and equated them and then made them appear in various areas, especially disease, as the same thing.
Studs Terkel This leads, of course, to a number of sequences and quite remarkable of Dr. Rosebury and literature itself, the scatological literature.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Yes. The word means excremental, of course.
Studs Terkel But throughout and some of the writers you most admire dealt with this very thing because they were not ashamed of what Freud would call trace of earth, of animal origins.
Theodor Rosebury Yes, and I think that there's more than a coincidence here, because it was the courageous ones, the honest ones, the great ones really, who were able to cut through the prejudices of their time and to see these things as they really were, Chaucer and Rabelais and Shakespeare and Swift and many others. Just as, and I don't make this point in the book, but it's a parallel point that's come up since, the great artists, the painters, the sculptors, refused to accept the taboos about the human body. And we go into the museums now and we see the naked human body and we glory in it. And recently we've had the opportunity to see the naked human body on the stage. And even a little bit in the movies. And while this has sometimes been exploited in an ugly commercial way, there are other times when, in my own experience, it has been done by young people in a fresh, healthy way which I have personally found absolutely delightful.
Studs Terkel The one danger, Dr., at this moment, is the thing you talked about earlier, the commercial exploitation of it.
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Studs Terkel This is the new development--
Theodor Rosebury Sure.
Studs Terkel That which you find beautiful, which inherently may be, at this moment that's a stage in theater and in film in which it's quite obviously used commercially, too, you see, there's a co-opting of it.
Theodor Rosebury This, of course, is not a reason to repress it. It is a reason to watch it and to try to guide it into healthy channels. And this is what the young people seem to want to do. Their own instincts are sound, just as it seems to me the healthy baby is a beautiful thing. Any healthy baby is a beautiful thing and only begins to be corrupted by its parents and by other adults as this whole process.
Studs Terkel Talking about babies, I think you show that the baby, once the umbilical cord is cut, once the baby comes out into the world--
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Studs Terkel The baby now is microbe-inhabited.
Theodor Rosebury During the very process of birth and continuously thereafter, microbes settle on the baby, go into the baby through its mouth, and those that are capable of living there, which are most likely to be microbes that come from other people, set up housekeeping, if you like, and stay there. Most of the bacteria that land on the baby in either way don't. Most of the species of microbes that are present in the world are not capable of surviving on the baby. A few are capable of producing disease.
Studs Terkel But if the mother or the doctor, say, the mother had this fetish and tried to make that baby as germ-free a little animal as possible, sanitize that baby wouldn't survive it, would it?
Theodor Rosebury Well, there has been a report of one that I know of, of a germ-free infant, of a single germ-free infant which was raised under germ-free conditions just as animals were because the mother had had four or five previous infants that had died as a result of a rare disease entailing failure of development of the immunity mechanism. This baby was kept alive under germ-free conditions for six days and then allowed, if you please, to go free because she was discovered to be quite normal in the immunity mechanism. So she was let out of prison. But there is a general understanding that this is a highly artificial state. The idea of doing it in this case was the thought that they might do some replacement surgery, some grafting, which might help if the immunity mechanism was imperfect, but since it was not necessary, she was allowed to have her microbes.
Studs Terkel Again we switch back and forth talking to Dr. Rosebury concerning his book "Life on Man". You're speaking of the various writers who are not afraid of scatology, scatological writings or erotic writings, too. You also speak of certain figures in our time, you mention, this is interesting, Lenny Bruce.
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Studs Terkel Who you call part of, in a sense, a part of a tradition. Was he not?
Theodor Rosebury Well, there, too. I agree with, I think, a very considerable body of young people in looking upon Lenny Bruce as a kind of latter-day saint. I have been criticized for this, but I--actually, since writing this book I had an opportunity to see one of the Lenny Bruce movies. This is as near as I got to ever seeing him in the flesh. Otherwise I've just read about him and heard some of his records. But I've looked into whatever I could find very carefully and I regard him as a person who sacrificed his life, actually, who was destroyed by the powers that be for no other reason than that he stood up in front of audiences and told the truth in blunt language that our society was unable to accept.
Studs Terkel As you know, I wish I had a tape with Lenny Bruce. An early one, the later one which I was quite obviously unable to play on the radio, in which he was quite marvelous, quite remarkable. I can't seem to find at the moment, one that I think you'd like very much.
Theodor Rosebury He did not. He didn't play, really, for laughs. And as a matter of fact, especially, I think, In his later years, although he got lots of laughs, the kind of laughing that he got was the kind of laughing that some of our "theater of the absurd" playwrights get; not because they are funny, but because they do something to us because they expose these very raw nerves which make us realize our own hypocrisy, and somehow our reaction to that is to laugh in a nervous kind of way to try to get rid of the energy that they've built up.
Studs Terkel In connection with that sequence, Dr. Rosebury, you asked the question, "Which harms the child more, the dirty word or the handsome adult on television enjoying a cigarette? Which is the more harmful?"
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Yes. Yes.
Studs Terkel That is the question again, isn't it?
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Of course, others have done this, too. I don't, I think it's not fair to suggest that that many of these ideas are original with me, the most that I have done is to try to pull many of them together and put them into one context and mix them up in a big part with microorganisms, with microbes, with bacteria.
Studs Terkel This always, it comes back again, that's the point. What makes this book so fascinating and delightful is that both the physical and the mental and the psychic, physical health and mental health are related throughout in your book. It begins with the microbe, "Life on Man".
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Studs Terkel But also how outside man, too, that the words he uses, the way he thinks, is also connected with the behavioral pattern of him physically, too.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Well, I think that we often make the mistake of treating subjects in isolation, and when we do this we don't see the connection between two, between things, and after all, the microbes that live on man are an intimate part of man, and man is a complex creature that has microbes and that has a mind and that has feelings and that has all sorts of things, and I have done my best to try to weave these all together.
Studs Terkel Now I've got to ask you a question as you're talking, this came up, I think you touch on it on Page 130, the idea of folk medicine, you know. Now and then we have a tendency to put down folk medicine.
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Studs Terkel But I understand that in China today. This is an understanding I have--
Theodor Rosebury Yes.
Studs Terkel There is modern medical work but also for older Chinese people, they have the herbalist, they have the magician.
Theodor Rosebury So I understand, too. I haven't been there and I don't know very much about it, but I read a book about it.
Studs Terkel Folk medicine. Itself. That there is a basis for it, is there not?
Theodor Rosebury Well, I don't say that in my book and I don't really know. I don't think I say it.
Studs Terkel No, I'm asking you. I was merely asking you.
Theodor Rosebury As a matter of fact, I think that, by and large, empirical medicine, like empirical science, before there was an experimental method, before it was possible to test out ideas by a rigorous procedure and find out whether they were true or not, was at least as likely to be wrong as right. And that when it was successful, it was successful purely by accident, and the notion that we can go back to folk medicine, of course we can go back to folk pharmacology, which is being done continually, and every now and then come up with something important like quinine, for example, which was originally a folk drug or at least its source was a folk drug. But it's a mistake, I think, to assume that folk medicine was necessarily good because it was folk medicine, and I make no such suggestion. I am after all an experimental scientist by trade if you like. That's my job, it's been my job for many years, and I don't depart from the principles that I learned in the laboratory many years ago.
Studs Terkel Back to the idea of microbes and balance in the human body just as I'm--this is my own feeling, just as Rachel Carson, Josephine Johnson, their books on nature and ecology speak of how the balance is being destroyed in the name of progress, you're saying, of course, it depends upon how the man is himself, you know, whether he's in good shape or bad shape. But this fetish for cleanliness, you mention a Professor Kira and a bathroom.
Studs Terkel This is almost a grotesquerie.
Theodor Rosebury Well, no it's not, it is and it isn't. In some respects, what Kira did was good, undeniably good. I may have treated him a little rough. He's an architect who made a study at Cornell University, supported, I believe, by funds from one or more plumbing concerns on the design of the modern bathroom. And he came up with a lot of ideas that are currently being put into practice, many of which are excellent. But I think he went overboard on the question of cleanliness. He speaks of something which he calls "total cleanness." That's his phrase. And he really takes it very seriously. He thinks we're not nearly clean enough, and it's in this area that I choose to argue with him, but not in some of his other things. I mean, there's good and bad in all of us, you know.
Studs Terkel The word "total cleanness," this is the point, when we become--
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Yes. This I pick up, and I object to it. I try to point out that this phrase will have different meaning to an architect and to a bacteriologist. To me it means absolute sterility, and sterility, of course, is a many-sided word. It means not only the absence of bacteria, it also means the absence of ideas.
Studs Terkel So we come back to that again, don't we? These are connected again, back and forth, shame of the body, shame of that which is natural in the body, shame of contact, sense of sin, and this would also have to lead to shame of an idea that might be different--
Studs Terkel That might be strange.
Studs Terkel And this is why your book is of one piece. You refer, you made us aware of a book, little known, but this is a classic, a masterpiece on scatology, Captain Bourke's book.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. "The Scatologic Rites of All Nations". Which, by the way, since I wrote this book I have been able to secure a copy. I had gotten it from the library, but now I have a copy of my own, it has been reprinted by a firm in New York called Johnson Reprints, and it's a real treasure.
Studs Terkel Now, in this book is more than scatology, it's everything, it's ritual, it's rite, it's custom of a variety of ancient peoples.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Yes. Yes. It's a tremendous collection of material going back from Bourke's own time which was turn of the century, to the earliest records. To the Bible and to other very early records, which he has dredged meticulously, and it's a marvelous source book for anyone interested in the subject.
Studs Terkel But it's more than scatology, it's the matter of custom and rite and everything and come back to man and--
Theodor Rosebury Well, it is--he calls it scatologic rites, R-I-T-E-S of all nations, and he deals with magic, with the use of herbs, with the use of various excrementitious material in aphrodisiacs, and with all this sort of thing. He goes into it in great detail--
Studs Terkel I'm astonished that--
Theodor Rosebury It's a book of nearly 500 pages.
Studs Terkel In your sequence, dealing with this book, you also see what Frazer only--I wasn't aware that, you know, this classic "The Golden Bough"--
Theodor Rosebury Right.
Studs Terkel Frazer, was really a bowdlerized work, that he himself was censoring himself.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. And Frazer, after all, was a Victorian, and, really, so was Bourke, and Bourke as I point out wrote with various rather curious devices that misled me at first into making me think that he himself had a great distaste for what he was doing. But Frazer actually left this sort of thing out, and Bourke's, who came a little after Frazer, supplied it.
Studs Terkel You know, I'm thinking as we're talking, the hour's almost gone with Dr. Theodor Rosebury, his book is "Life on Man", and the--Viking the publishers, and it's one that we've heard a great deal about Norman O. Brown's book, "Life Against Death", as John Leonard in the "Times", said, take this one along, too. "Adam Had 'Em," you're quoting Virginia Woolf in a comment here about the great psychologist, there's a certain kind of humor. 'Cause also this all deals with our mental health as well, this [book deals with?] mental health. Virginia Woolf wrote, "As a certain kind of humor depends upon being able to speak without self-consciousness of the parts and functions of the body, so with the advent of decency literature lost the use of one of its limbs. It lost its power to create the wife of Bath, Juliette's nurse, and the recognizable though already colorless relation, Moll Flanders. Stern, from fear of coarseness, is forced into indecency. He must be witty, not humorous. He must hint instead of speaking outright. Nor can we believe what Mr. Joyce's Ulysses before us, that laughter of the old kind will ever be heard again."
Theodor Rosebury Isn't that a marvelous passage?
Studs Terkel Beautiful. Now this raises a key question about language, this leads into it. You were saying that somewhere along with the Puritan, with a Cromwellian--"Revolution" is a bad word to use.
Theodor Rosebury It was called that.
Studs Terkel That something happened to the language of Shakespeare. Never again was it recaptured, this is Virginia Woolf was touching on, too.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Correct. Correct. Yes, we talk of Elizabethan monosyllables, and we mean something by this, they were current in Elizabethan times and they were lost gradually--
Studs Terkel But wasn't there a comeback in during the Restoration?
Theodor Rosebury No, it was a different sort of thing in the Restoration, as I am at some, I think, as I'm at some pains to point out, in the Restoration we had a recreation of marked class distinctions. The theater, which is the thing that I talk about especially in here, was now aimed at the upper classes alone. The theater then was concerned with comedy and healthy humor of a scatological character was now lost in favor of mannered licentiousness. And there is a difference; it isn't that human beings are no longer sexy, they've always been sexy no amount of oppression has ever been able to bottle that sort of thing up. But there was a change. And I think the change was largely a cleavage between classes which led among other things to the censorship laws that came in during this time in their modern form that didn't exist before.
Studs Terkel So here's the difference in, between Elizabethan language and the Restoration language, that one was mannered, the one that followed, the other was most natural and flowed right through [whether? with a?] groundling or lord.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Yes. And it's hard for us to see that today because when we read Shakespeare or hear a Shakespearean play, there are many parts of it that are obscure to us, but there is much reason to believe, and the scholars are in pretty general agreement on this subject, that it was not obscure to Shakespeare's audiences which consisted of groundlings, you know, that paid a penny to get into the theater as well as the lords and ladies that sat in the seats.
Studs Terkel So we come back to Dr. Rosebury's book that deals with that something has happened to us and that, obviously, calls for a redefinition of obscenity. Again we come back to what we see on the tube, see on television, we hear on radio, what we see in the ads, and the question is, "Is it the dirty word? Is it the matter of sexual scenes or is it that polluted stream? Is it the cigarette ad? Is it that 'Don't spray, baby,' says lovely mother on TV?" Take it off, take it all off. The use of sex to sell in, say, a shaving cream commercial. We come back to that again, don't we? The very end. You also point out there are more microbes on the human body than there are plant--than there are in the world's population.
Theodor Rosebury Far more. Far more. Far more on any one human body than there are people on the earth. More by a factor of oh, a thousand to a million. By a factor of a thousand to a million.
Studs Terkel By the factor of a thousand--so there are a bill--you're saying there are trillions--
Theodor Rosebury That's right.
Theodor Rosebury That's right.
Studs Terkel Trillions of microbes in each of us.
Theodor Rosebury Yes. Yes. Well, at least the number can run up that high. It varies over fairly wide limits, but it can run up that high.
Studs Terkel Then we'll never quite be wholly clean as Professor Kara would like to be.
Theodor Rosebury We never will be. And we should never try to be because it would not be good to be. We should be glad we're not.
Studs Terkel Dr. Theodor Rosebury is our guest, and the subtitle by the way, I should like to read John Leonard's last comment again about this book. "What makes "Life on Man" required reading for literate people," this is "The New York Times" review, "is that it teaches us about an important discipline. It challenges with construction space on our biological historical past. It brightens with wit. It is a superb indictment of those who would turn us into plastic for their personal profit." And the book is Viking, published, Theodor Rosebury the author, my guest, the eminent bacteriologist, "Life on Man" is the book and the last paragraph goes, "Obscenity is like the shuffled pea in the old shell game. You get fooled every time. The world is full of it, but the quick hand directs your eye to the wrong shell. Is it you who offend or the ad man who offends against you? Is the healthy body its parts, functions and products, or the exhalations of automobiles and smokestacks? Which shell do you choose, words or deeds? Is it the obscenities hurled by unarmed civilians or the swinging nightsticks and bellowing nausea gas [unintelligible] police? Is it normal microbes or perverted men? Dr. Theodor Rosebury. Ted Rosebury. Thank you very much.
Theodor Rosebury You're very welcome, Studs.
Studs Terkel "Life on Man", Viking, publishers.