LIFE ON MAN

Theodore Rosebury

London, 1969.


No doubt this is no longer in print, but it remains a big favourite, though perhaps not a cult classic, if the cult comprises one person.

The nub of the book is this:

"All life is a single community, including the parasites. Some of them are our natural enemies and need to be treated accordingly. But it would be good for us in general... if we could stop thinking indiscriminately of microbes and parasites as repulsive, contemptible or ferocious." (p.44)

Some idea of the scope of our local community, of life on man, can be seen here:

"If we give him an average of 5 x 106 bacteria on each square centimetre of his skin, he will have 1011 microbes on his outer surface." (p.62)

And if we look within:

"A rough calculation based on an alimentary surface area of 1.5 m2, assuming a microbic density of 109 per cm2, would yield a total of 1.5 x 1013, or 15 trillion microbes."

There is much more to all this than such staggering statistics, and Rosebury treats us to a fascinating tour through little-known by-ways of literature and anthropology, documenting historical and cultural attitudes to obscenity, regaling us with the tales of the great scatologists, such as the incomparable Rabelais, and outlining the history of the privy.

It will be realized that far from microbes and excreta being a universal cause of revulsion, they may be matters of great reverence. Rosebury quotes from Pinkerton's Voyages of 1814:

"Warren Hastings speaks of the Thibetan priests of high degree, the 'Ku-tchuch-tus', who, he says, 'admit a superiority to the Dalai Lama, so that his excrements are sold as charms, at great price, among all the Tartar tribes of this religion'." (p.135)

There is much to dwell on in this marvellous book, but I will end with Rosebury's remarks about hygiene:

"Eyewashes, mouthwashes and douches have no value even as cosmetics, despite certain opinions to the contrary even among professional people, who have merely picked these ideas uncritically out of the ancient lore to which we are all exposed. If washing is occasionally required, plain water serves as well as anything in the mouth, and table salt, a little less than 1 part in 100 parts of water, on other mucous membranes, including the eye. On skin, soap and water; and, if you really want the truth not too much soap, and not too often." (p.225)

Infesting the social context for all this is that genuinely loathsome creature, the advertizer:

"Obscenity is like the shuffle pea in the old shell game; you get fooled every time. The world is full of it, but the quick hand directs your hand to the wrong shell. Is it you who 'offend' or the adman who offends against you?" (p.236)


New Scientist's Last Word section, 30 September 2000, looked at the different species living on or in the human body.



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Paul Taylor 2001