Food for Thought

Food and Drink Lates map no bleed

My stop on the August Largactyl Shuffle for CoolTan Arts in the old dioramas at the Scince Museum for their LATES program.

What’s eating us

In the late nineteenth century Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch led the way in identifying and describing many pathologies and showed that many infections were the result of bacterial infestations. Horrifyingly, it became apparent that certain microscopic pests were set on eating us! They were keenly adapted to digest specific organs and had life styles that promote their dissemination through human populations. These mechanistic conceptions of invisible organisms interacting with the human the human body revolutionised our understandings of health and disease.

Until WW2, keeping our food and drink, as well as our wounds, clean was the only line of defence. Antibiotics were developed for human use in 1939 by Florey and Chain in Oxford, and since then have arguably saved more human lives than any other single technological innovation. In affluent countries we commonly expect a long life spent in good health, safe in the hands of modern medicine. For many a sanitised view of life has become entrenched. It is good and normal to be in perfect health and poor health has been socially stigmatised. While anxieties about terminal diseases have surely waned, neuroses about cleanliness have risen and we have been further distanced us from ancestral relationships with nature and food.

By 1955, decades of research had led to the development of many of the techniques which underpin modern microbiology, and they are still important for the diagnosis and treatment of disease today. Here we see a bacteriology laboratory which shares many things in common with a contemporary one. The big metal vessels at the back are autoclaves which use high pressure steam to sterilise equipment and liquids. There is nutrient agar jelly which can be used to isolate bacteria. There special dyes which can be used to stain and identify specific strains.

We now know that we are covered from head to toe, and mouth to backside, in bacteria. And this is a good thing. Trillions of commensal organism cover our every surface forming, complex ecological relationships with each other, our physiology and our environment. However sometimes, mysteriously, this fine balance of microbe and man is upset and our digestive systems go haywire. Conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome can be debilitating both physically and emotionally. We can become socially isolated as our confidence to move freely is undermined. Without good medical understanding and worries about social stigmatisation people may suffer from depression or social anxiety. So while the foundations of bacteriology represented here hold many answers and salve bodily insults we need to keep mindful of the individual’s emotional and social needs. For our overall wellbeing we need to navigate complex relationships with both our human and microbial neighbours so that we can eat well and well prevent being eaten.


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