Research: Hygienic Individualism

Benson Bubbler FountainIntroduction:

Throughout the nineteenth century, the conceit of “individualism” enjoyed a peculiarly positive connotation among Americans. Whereas European authors widely denounced individualism as a socially corrosive ideology, their American counterparts instead embraced it as a potential wellspring of progress and prosperity for their young nation. Of these American perspectives, among the most influential was that of Frederick Jackson Turner (1861-1932), whose “Frontier Thesis” of the nation’s history, first put forth in 1893, attributed the exceptional character of the American people largely to their unprecedented experiment in cultivating Old World society on New World soil.

Along the frontier, Turner said, Americans experienced “the complex European life sharply precipitated by the wilderness into the simplicity of primitive conditions,” and because of the harshness of life within this environment, he concluded, “the frontier is productive of individualism.” Turner saw individualism in the United States emerging as a result of spatial experience and perception. Other scholars in the nineteenth century had explored individualism as a dynamic of politics, economics, and ethics, but until Turner none had ever considered it principally as a dynamic of space. Turner by no means sought to limit the influence of this individualism to the frontier itself; its cultural force radiated throughout the nation, he said, as “that restless, nervous energy; the dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom—these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.”

Yet, by the late nineteenth century, as Turner and others noted, the frontier was fast receding from the life of the nation as each passing year found new arrivals filling the continent’s few remaining hinterlands, “and with its going,” said Turner, “has closed the first period of American history.” The qualities of a second, he left largely undefined, except to say that, “He would be a rash prophet who should assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased.” In the past, he noted, the frontier had always served to “furnish a new field of opportunity, a gate of escape from the bondage of the past,” and so its role would remain in the future, he supposed.

As the familiar frontier of Turner waned from the American experience, the space of another began to open. Its interior had only recently become accessible through advances in the science and technology of the laboratory, especially refinements in the instrument of the compound microscope. Awareness of the perils found there soon came to resonate powerfully in the minds and actions of everyday Americans. Whereas Turner had described a frontier of tremendous vastness, a macroscopic space, this new frontier was instead a place of imperceptible smallness: a microscopic space. Turner’s frontier had been a dominion of the physical sciences, through whose exercise Americans had surveyed the frontier, extracted its resources, made its barren lands fertile, and overcome its terrestrial barriers and hostile populations. Instead, the microscopic frontier was a purview of the biological sciences.

It was bacteriologists who explored its confines, catalogued its many forms of life, brought its mortal dangers to light, and ultimately sought within it a new field of health and wellness and a gate of escape from the bondage of disease. While Turner’s frontier had been widely understood to instill Americans with an ethos of “rugged individualism,” their response to the microscopic frontier was comparatively far more timid. Without effective conceptual or material means to subjugate its savageries, Americans by necessity took defensive stance against them. Around the turn of the twentieth century, this self-protective impulse coalesced as what I identify here as ‘hygienic individualism,’ a mode of thought and behavior wherein the individual sought isolation and independence from pathogenic microorganisms, which bacteriology had only recently identified as the principal causes of disease—or agents of infection.


Matt Gunterman’s dissertation at Yale is entitled, “The Uncommon Cup: God, Germs, and Hygienic Individualism in America,” and he is advised by John Harley Warner, Avalon Professor of the History of Medicine. Also serving on his committee are Daniel J. Kevles, Stanley Woodward Professor of History, and Naomi Rogers, Associate Professor of History of Medicine. As a scholar, Gunterman specializes in fields of American medicine, public health, science and technology in American culture, American political history, and medicine and religion in the United States.

Teaching Experience:

HSHM S192: Medicine and Religion in America (Instructor: Summer 2012)

HSHM 235: Epidemics in the West since 1600 (Teaching Fellow: Fall 2011)

HSHM 202: Media and Medicine in America (Teaching Fellow: Fall 2012)

HSHM 231: History of Psychiatry (Teaching Fellow: Fall 2009)

HSHM 123: Cultures and Histories of the Mind (Teaching Fellow: Fall 2008)

HSHM 210: Magic Bullets and Wonder Pills (Teaching Fellow: Spring 2008)

HSHM 205: Alcohol and Other Drugs in America (Head Teaching Fellow: Fall 2007)

HSHM 230: History of American Bodies (Head Teaching Fellow: Spring 2007)

Selected Professional Presentations:

“The Material Culture of Faith and Infection,”
Workshop in Cultural Analysis, Dickenson College, April 2012.

“Internalizing Infectiousness: The Immateriality of the Cup,”
Material Culture Series, Yale University, October 2010.

“A Fountain of Indignity: Germs and the Infrastructure of Racial Segregation, 1890- 1920,”
American Association for the History of Medicine Annual Meeting, Mayo Clinic, Rochester Minnesota, May 2010.

“Between Sanitary & Sacred: Holy Communion & the Protestant Response to Bacteriology, 1890-1920,”
Seminar in the Sensory Cultures of Religion,” Yale University, November 2009.

“Disposable by Design: Selling the Dixie Cup to America, 1900-1920,”
American Association for the History of Medicine Annual Meeting, Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, Ohio, April 2009.

“The Germ in the Chalice: A Case When Science Met the Sacred, 1890-1910,”
History of Science Society Annual Meeting, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, November 2008.

“Jesus and the Germ: American Creationists Confront Bacteriology, 1890-1920,”
American Religious History Working Group, October 2007.

“Echo in the Embryo: Science and the Cultural Construction of Sanctity,”
Holmes Workshop Series, Yale University, April 2007.

“The Business of Germs: Marketing Individuality in the Early Twentieth Century,”
Holmes Workshop Series, Yale University, November 2005.