Lunchtime seminar series – 5th May: Agnes Arnold-Forster (King’s College London)


‘The Tyranny Which Germ Theory May Exercise’: Contagion and the Causes of Cancer in the Nineteenth Century

In 2007 Michael Worboys and Flurin Condrau waded briefly into a debate over whether cancer was considered contagious in the nineteenth century. They cite a single reference in Worboy’s Spreading Germs, which ‘makes it clear that the notion had very few supporters and was anyway short-lived.’ This paper offers a rebuttal, suggesting that the question of whether cancer was contagious was subject to extensive debate in various medical circles, and as Graham Mooney claimed ‘a worry amongst the general public.’

While medical men had long suggested cancer might be contagious, the debate escalated after 1860. Using a close analysis of primary source material – medical tracts, treatises and periodicals, private correspondence, domestic medicine manuals, and household encyclopedias – a variety of interpretations and conclusions can be drawn from this controversy. There is ample evidence to suggest that the debate about cancer and contagion filtered through many layers of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century society: informing lay understandings of the disease, complicating professional conceptions, and pointing to a newly-visible relation between the two. Not only do the narratives around cancer etiology provide support for the notion that there were multiple ‘germ theories’ operating simultaneously, they also attest to how malleable conceptions of contagion and infection were. Finally, it seems that to understand cancer discourse in this period we might require an alternative understanding of what contagion meant to nineteenth-century actors, as well as a reassessment of the hold germ theory exerted over both professional and lay imaginations.


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