The Proof is in the Pudding: A Bah! Humbug! Victorian Christmas

‘He is an utter and bombastic fraud. He rolls spluttering and crackling onto the English dinner-table at Yuletide, a sprig of English holly cocked jauntily in his cap, well nigh bursting his rotund body in swaggering sham patriotism.’1

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From: L. F. Austin and A. R. Ropes, ‘The Whirligig of Time’ The English Illustrated Magazine 123 (Dec 1893) pp.261-68.

Thus begins an article published in The Windsor Magazine in 1897. The subject is the plum-pudding, a dish that the author calls a ‘genuine, rollicking comrade of the roast beef of Old England.’ A few years earlier, the English Illustrated Magazine had dubbed the pudding ‘our national heritage’ along with his ‘baked brother, the mince pie’.⁠2 And surely Christmas isn’t Christmas without Christmas Pudding? It certainly isn’t in our family, where, come 9pm, we will all undoubtedly be sitting beneath a bedecked and balding tree listening to Michael Bublé from the depths of our festive food-comas. Along with Father Christmas, stockings, reindeer, presents, mistletoe, wine, and A Muppet’s Christmas Carol, the plum pudding is a staple of the modern British festive celebrations. In 1893, L. F. Austin and A R. Ropes even suggested that it might bond the globe together in a ‘Pan-Anglican Federation’ alongside our timeless literary heritage: ‘our chief bond of union,’ they write, ‘will be our common possession of Shakespeare, Milton, and plum-pudding’!

For the Victorians, the Christmas pudding represented ‘the character of a race that can assimilate’⁠3—a endorsement of British imperialism and of the English belly. However, as the opening quotation suggests, this culinary emblem had a dark side. It contained ‘black spots of indigestion’ and was ‘a rough practical joker to the nervous folk who suffer from nightmare’.⁠4 Its imagined fealty to Britain was, for the authors, undercut by its ability to cause digestive distress and give rise to bad dreams.

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Indeed, the plum-pudding as antagonist enjoys a wide currency in nineteenth-century periodicals and it is no better illustrated than by satirical magazine Judy’s Christmas Annual cover of 1895, which features a young man awoken to the terrifying prospect of being eaten by his yuletide supper! The cartoon provides an updated British equivalent to Henry Fuseli’s 1781 painting ‘The Nightmare’ and Jean Pierre Simon’s 1810 ‘Cochemare’ both of which drew on an established literary tradition by depicting a chest-sitting incubus as an expression of sleep paralysis. Judy playfully transforms the incubus into a pudding and in doing so, reminds us of the power of poor digestion to disrupt our sleep. The marketers of Sea Foam Baking Powder, drew on this same connection between nightmares and indigestion when they used a goblin-like creature to represent dyspepsia and poor sleep in the 1880s.

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When I was 6 or 7, I  remember my grandmother telling me that I would get nightmares if I ate cheese after midnight. She had fallen asleep between my sister and I, mid-way through a bedtime story (which incidentally featured us children running an off-the-cuff omelette restaurant). Dutifully waking her up to finish the tale, we announced that we were now hungry—starving—and as she crept with us to the kitchen, she informed us of this gastric truth. Well, it didn’t deter us from enjoying our midnight feast, but had she read me some festive Victorian periodical poetry, it might well have sent a chill to my heart and I think I would have put down the Wensleydale.

In 1878, Fun published a poem called ‘Indigestion—a Christmas Carol’ which featured a demon riding a christmas pudding:

[…] Then down on your bosom, with pendulum stroke,
The pudding comes clattering—thud!
The pleasant suspicious your sternum is broke
Conduces to curdle your blood,
And there on the top is the demon himself,
A goodly king for it all!
You clutch at the clothes to get rid of the elf—
That counterpane is your pall!
And you toss and rear
First there, then here.
And squirming, and foaming, and groaning you rave;
But all in vain,
You’ll keep the pain;
The demon your agonised efforts will brave.⁠5

The demon is indigestion made literal—a cultural referent immortalised in Adolphus Bridger’s 1888 medical textbook The Demon of Dyspepsia, and invoked by poets, authors, and commercial medicine throughout the century. Mother Seigel’s syrup for indigestion, for example, warned against the ‘touch of the demon’s chilling fingers’ as the first signs of chronic digestive distress.

The connection between digestion and dreams has, of course, a long cultural history, but in the nineteenth century, the phenomenon was narrated in ever more medicalised terms. Christmas stories like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) and The Chimes (1844) both of which feature ghostly apparitions (or in the latter case—perhaps appropriately—goblins), offer gastric explanations for the protagonists’s moral awakenings. We are all undoubtedly familiar with Scrooge’s accusation that Marley’s ghost is ‘a blot of mustard’, ‘a crumb of cheese’, or ‘a bit of underdone potato’—‘there’s more of gravy than of grave about you!’ And Trotty, the postman in The Chimes swears off eating tripe after his encounter. In 1878, The Examiner agreed that Marley was most assuredly a ‘hobgoblin’ precipitated by ‘the imminent festivities of christmas’, even going so far as to assign all historical belief in the spiritual world to the violent nightmares of indigestion. Dickens’s ghosts are examples of the ‘horrors which imagination can body forth under temporary derangements of the sensory apparatus.’⁠6

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From: ‘The Whirligig of Time’ English Illustrated Magazine (Dec 1893) p.262.

And these horrors commonly found representation in the monstrous plum-pudding, rolling ominously around the chamber floor – one author used Edgar Allan Poe’s popular narrative poem The Raven (1845) as a model to tell the story of a boy awoken by what he initially thinks is a kitten playing beside his bed. ‘Then into the darkness peering, shivering, wondering, doubting, fearing/I could dimly see a pudding rolling on my chamber floor/[…] may I see it nevermore!’ In the December issue of the London Society Illustrated Magazine in 1867, another poem recounts what one man saw the night after eating christmas pudding. Like Scrooge, his senses seem to trick him and he sees the pudding come alive:

The passage gained—I firmly do declare
I saw a pudding bounding up the stair:
A blue flame rose upon his greasy brow—
I think I see him grinning at me now.
I seized him quickly—he was just as quick,
And changed himself into my candlestick.⁠7

The pudding has current eyes and ‘nose all made of plums’, almond teeth, lemon-peel gums and a horrid grin—a haunting image if ever there was one! It chides him for overeating and like many other christmas poems puns on the notion that the proof of the pudding is indigestion.

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‘The Proof is in the Pudding’ Judy (16 Dec 1868) p.85.

The London Review identified a ‘plum-pudding literature’, which appears seasonally and is ‘more Dickens than Dickens himself!’ While we now obsess over Dickens’s supposed invention of modern Christmas, the Victorians were equally aware of his cultural influence (and often cheesed off by it!) The author complains that come christmas all sensible periodicals are ‘thoroughly Dickenized and the space hitherto occupied with essays upon the inner life of the tadpole, or the suspected embarrassment of an abandoned shellfish, [are] occupied with domestic feelings and tales within which the sentiments are violently Christmas.’

If you identify with this bah! Humbug! approach to the festive season, spare a thought for those people who, as Chambers’s journal noted in 1877, spend the holiday in a ‘monotony of dyspepsia’ surrounded by ‘indigestible plum pudding and murderous mince pies’.⁠8

Seasons Greetings from the Diseases of Modern Life Team. May your sleep on Christmas night be long, peaceful, and free from violent goblins and ominous plum puddings!

Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown
Postdoctoral Researcher, Diseases of Modern Life


‘Our Christmas Plum-Puddings’ The Windsor Magazine 7 (Dec 1897) pp.64-68. (p.64).
L. F. Austin and A. R. Ropes, ‘The Whirligig of Time’ The English Illustrated Magazine 123 (Dec 1893) pp.261-68. (p.262)
‘Plum-Pudding’ Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science, and Art 10.270 (29 Dec 1860) pp.828-829.
4 ‘Our Christmas Plum-Puddings’ p.65.
5 Henry Sampson (ed) ’Indigestion! A Christmas Carol’ Fun 28(18 Dec 1878) p.252.
6 ‘The Literature of Spiritualism’ The Examiner (30 Nov 1878)3696 pp.1518-19 (p.1518).
‘What I Saw After the Christmas Pudding’ London Society: An Illustrated Magazine of Light and Amusing Literature for the Hours of Reflection 12.72 (Dec 1867) pp.55-58.
William Chambers and John Payn eds. ’Christmas-Time’ Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Arts 730 (22 Dec 1877) pp.801-803.


Songs, Cakes, and Games: Thoughts on Performing, Baking, and Playing Our Research at Oxford’s Curiosity Carnival

On 29th September 2017, Oxford hosted the Curiosity Carnival – a city-wide public engagement event as part of European Researcher’s night. With talks, stalls, performances, plays, and activities in broad street and in venues such as the Ashmolean, the Botanic Gardens, the Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum, it proved hugely popular, and many travelled from far and wide to see what the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes’s academics had to offer. The Diseases of Modern Life team and its sister project Constructing Scientific Communities were excited to contribute their own research in innovative and unusual forms – a cake, a game, and a song and dance!

Dr Melissa Dickson  – Baking Sound 

I have long enjoyed baking as a form of respite from intense bouts of research and writing. Undoubtedly, procrastination baking, or “Procrastibaking”, can easily become a dangerous and time-consuming addiction. But there is nothing more soothing than sifting flour in the small hours of the morning, and there is nothing more satisfying than the kind of immediate, delicious results that can be produced in the kitchen after a long day working at a five year research project. Baking, according to some psychological studies, can even cultivate mindfulness, improve focus, and reduce stress. When the opportunity arose to present my research in the form of a baked good as part of the Curiosity Carnival’s Great Research Bake-Off, I was intrigued. Was there a way to use baking not as a means of academic procrastination, but as a new way of thinking about what I do? Was it possible to conceptualise and communicate my work in the form of a cake?

Taking up this challenge, I began to consider both the medium and the message. VictorianSoundI am a
literary historian of the Victorian period, so a Victoria Sandwich seemed an obvious choice. Structurally, I divide my work on Victorian soundscapes into four main areas: literature, science, medicine, and popular culture. This might be signified by 4 tiers to the cake. Sound itself, I might represent by way of popping candy, spread in between the tiers of the cake and along the top. Just as popping candy is something that you can see, hear, and feel pop, sound in this period was not just something audible; it was also something that could be seen, graphed, and measured for the first time, and something that could be felt as vibrations passing through the body and atmosphere. This led to the invention of new technologies, like the telegraph, telephone, microphone, gramophone, and phonograph. Cream horns, I reflected, might represent these new devices for capturing and amplifying sound and relaying it across time and space in different mediums.

ResearchBake-OffAs I spent the week baking sponge cakes, experimenting with butter creams, and working out how to mould cream horns, I found that my friends and family, though bemused, began to show genuine interest not only in offering their services as taste-testers, but in the research questions that I posed. At the Bake-Off itself, as the public wandered through our marquis, I found that the researchers’ cakes functioned as easily grasped, material props from which to begin intriguing conversations. An edible medium seemed to enhance the conversation, literally making the concepts easier to digest. And once I’d wandered the stalls and eaten a few cupcake tumours, pondered the role of language with the aid of a swiss roll, and tasted the earth’s atmosphere depicted in icing, I realised that the associated touch, taste, and sight of the cakes also made their lessons more memorable. All my hours of procrastibaking, it seems, had not been such a waste of time after all.

Dr Sally Frampton – Playing Science 

“Blowing tobacco smoke into the anus of a semi-conscious individual will revive them”…

Current medical theory? An obsolete practice? Or entirely made-up?

This was just one of the weird and wonderful statements we put to people who came to visit our Mind-Boggling Medical History stall at the Curiosity Carnival. Mind-Boggling Medical History is an educational game we’re developing (funded by the AHRC) which is designed to challenge preconceptions about history and show how ideas in medicine change for a variety of reasons. From floating kidneys to brain size to transplanted heads, we challenged visitors to decide which statements were about current medical practice, which were based on historical ideas or practices no longer used, and which we had…well….just made up entirely. As we’ve found on previous occasions, the game sparks fascinating conversations about how medical ideas come in and out of fashion and how the truth of medicine is often stranger than fiction. Statements relating to phrenology, for example, (the nineteenth-century theory that skull shape could tell you about brain shape and this in turn could tell you about a person’s personality) generated conversations about modern day neuroscience and the use of imaging to connect behaviour to brain structure. While other statements about gender and anatomy provoked debate and discussion about the different ways in which both men and women’s bodies and minds have been understood. The day was great fun for us, and we got to learn more about what aspects of health and medicine really fascinate people. One of the most enjoyable parts was being challenged on the way we categorised statements: not everyone agreed with our decisions about what was historical and what was contemporary, and how we determine what scientific ‘truth’ is. This is what we hope the game will do: get people thinking about medicine in its past and present contexts and show that the differences between the two are not always clear or straightforward!

Mind-Boggling Medical History at the Curiosity Carnival was hosted by Daniel Burt, Sarah Chaney, Molly Fennelly and Sally Frampton.

Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown – Performing Digestive Health

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity, along with five researchers from across the University of Oxford, to work with the multi-talented musician and song-writer Jonny Berliner, as a part of the carnival called Musical Abstracts. We each worked with Jonny to turn our research into a song for a popular audience. For mine, I chose what we would now call the ‘gut-brain axis’, and what the Victorian’s knew as the dynamic relationship between stomach and mind. I give a brief explanation of my thought process in the following video, but what I wanted to highlight with the song was the attention that many writers in the nineteenth century paid to the interconnections between gastrointestinal and psychiatric health, and how this was constructed across disciplines and genres. The title and recurring refrain is taken from an advertisement for Holman’s Liver Pad in 1893, which stated: ‘The Stomach is the Absolute Monarch of Humanity. Supreme is its rule! Neglect it and punishment is certain! Injure it and its vengeance is premature death!’


From Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 154 (Dec 1893) 938 p.10.

Working with Jonny on the lyrics really helped me to think in different ways about my research and forced me to reflect on the central ‘message’ without the opportunity of disclaimers or footnotes.

Magnificently, Jonny managed to compose it as swing music, so I was able to combine the project with my favourite hobby and choreographed a lindy hop routine to accompany the song, which was performed four times throughout the carnival at various locations around Oxford.


Watch the video of the performance below!


Victorian Dietetics and Sugar-Free February.

It’s coming to the end of what has been for me, and for many other New Year’s resolution-keepers, “sugar-free February”. A whole month without any added or refined sugar. This move was partly inspired by my work, and partly inspired by a general commitment to self-care. I wasn’t ready to commit to “Dry-January”, but “Sugar-Free Feb” seemed manageable and aside from a few lapses (Valentine’s day for one), it’s been a successful experiment. I was dutifully horrified by all the things that have needlessly added sugar and so manage to sneak themselves into our diets, and I suspect I’m healthier for it – sugar certainly tastes sweeter now, no pun intended! Working as I do on gastrointestinal health in the nineteenth century, I am regularly visited by contrition as I read periodical essays, short stories, poems, and medical tracts about how important it is to attend to one’s dietetic needs.

The Victorians were preoccupied by food and the practices of eating, and gastrointestinal health was privileged as a lens through which to measure society. This seems particularly germane at a time when we are now more obsessed with our own dietary choices than ever before. Consider the rise of gluten-free, diary-free, vegetarian, vegan, and organic options in the supermarket; consider the obesity and diabetes “epidemics” that feature in the news on an almost daily basis, and it’s not hard to draw parallels between the nineteenth century and the twenty-first. Just this month, we had “roastie-gate” – or “toastie-gate”,  depending on your carby preference – where we were told that too crispy a roast potato (or too crunchy a PB and J) might pose a risk to our long term health – a panicked overreaction that appears to have little basis in the science.  Whether or not acrylamide poses a tangible risk to our health remains to be seen; however, the regimented attention to correct dietary practices might certainly be traced back to the nineteenth century.

The nineteenth century brought us the beginnings of organised vegetarianism (for health and ethical reasons), the recognition of the dangers of sugar and fat—“Pies and cakes are poisonous”⁠1 (Bow Bells 1871)—and the developing recognition of allergies and intolerances. ‘Strawberries’ noted one writer, as early as 1868, ‘that are so delicious to almost everybody, are poison to many,’ also remarking that figs in some people give rise to ‘a sensation like the tickling movement of ants upon the palate’—a clear description of anaphylaxis.⁠2  Articles explored the value of now-recognised dietary vices with amusingly entitled pretexts like ‘Coffee, is it a food?’ and ‘Alcohol: food, drink or poison?’ In the early decades of the century, our attitudes to sugar were too very different. ‘The plentiful use of sugar in diet is one of the best preventatives that has ever been discovered of the diseases that are produced by worms’, claimed Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal, ‘Nature seems to have implanted a love for this aliment in all children, as it were on purpose to protect them from those diseases.’⁠3 The article goes on to deem sugar an antidote to fever, disorders of the breast, and even styles it an antiscurbotic. But the interest comes when the article turns to the aesthetic implications of sugar. The Cochin Chinese, it claims, require the body-guard of the King to take daily amounts of sugar (gotten by a small allowance of money) in order to do honour to their master by their handsome appearance. Indeed, contrary to current trends, the corpulence of an individual was often deemed a measure of their wealth, worth, and beauty. As the century drew on this began to change and the relative desirability of fatness was fiercely debated in the medical and popular press.

‘Is there any harm in getting fat?’ asked articles about diet – a question that now seems bewildering in its naivety. One writer concluded that it is only a problem since the introduction of seats in assemblies and the confined spaces of vehicles (particularly public transport) where ‘fat men and crinolined ladies have become annoyances’.⁠4 In the 1860s, a plethora of articles addressed the ‘Banting method’, which might be taken as a model for the first fad diet. This diet, which will be familiar to you all in one guise of another, consisted of limiting one’s intake of sugar and carbs, and eating more vegetables. Although by today’s standards this “diet” seems more like sensible life style advice, some writers still warned against taking it to extremes and saw it as their duty to remind the public of the bodily requirements of some fat in the diet: ‘Like every man who rides a hobby, having mounted his Pegasus, he would rise till he scorches himself, or sink till he cannot recover. We shall endeavour to rein in this ill-regulated steed.’⁠5 This attitude is unsurprising given that contemporaneous opinion pieces were still celebrating the delights of sugar as ‘not only a condiment; it is a most important article in diet, and aid to digestion’.⁠6 This same article noted that ‘throughout the whole of the great class of animals headed by man, from elephant down to shrew mouse, there is one sort of tooth—the sweet tooth—common to all.’ ‘Even the canary bird understands sugar,’ writes the author, arguing for its function as a tool for garnering affection and training animals.

Along with the growing recognition of the dangers of excess fat, came a sense of social responsibility and a renegotiation of national identity. Depictions of John Bull were particularly controversial, a national representation that The Leisure Hour deemed a ‘sad relic’ at the end of the century.

‘This heavy overfed individual is still held up to our rising generation, and the world, as the type of British perfection […] surely there are members of the Royal Society who could undertake to give us some better representation of a physically perfect gentleman of the nineteenth century?’⁠7

As societal values began to shift, articles encouraged the public to ‘pity’ rather than ‘despise’ those who are overweight, ‘people are often too cruel to the fat person who helplessly plumps down upon them in the crowded ‘bus, or wedges them into a corner in some throng round the door of a place of amusement.’⁠8 However, sentiments like this did little to empower overweight individuals, who were framed as “jolly fat friends” or as miserable loners who lived in denial and helplessness. Both of these perspectives are showcased in a poem published in Fun in 1867, in which an unhappy sugar-broker piles on the pounds following hollow success.

His bulk increased—no matter that—
He tried the more to toss it—
He never spoke of it as “fat”,
But “adipose deposit”.
Upon my word, it seems to me,
Unpardonable vanity,


‘A Discontented Sugar Broker’ Fun 1(14 Dec 1867) p.137. 

(And worse than that!)
To call your fat,
An “adipose deposit.”

The final lines reveal the bodily impact of his excess weight, as well the social judgement that follows.

Despite the stigmatisation of corpulence that accompanied changes in dietary knowledge, there were some positive lessons that we might benefit from remembering. Writers speculated on the importance of meal size, eating times, the quantity and quality of food, of exercise and of mental attitude in ways that ultimately paved the ways for a more personalised approach to health. Dietetic treatments enabled individuals to take control of their health in new ways, as is evidenced by the many letters written to the popular press reporting of self-experimentation.

In pursuit of the treatment of indigestion, headaches, and depression, the general public experimented with “free from” diets, and many with great success. However, as an article in 1886 highlighted, what was healthy for one person was not always the case for another, ‘in some cases abstention from pastry might be desirable, in others from cheese, and so on.’⁠9  In the Daily Telegraph today (21st Feb) one article criticised the ‘10,000 steps a day myth’ arguing that the one-size fits all rule could do more damage than good. Dr Steve Flatt of Liverpool University is even quoted as comparing the plethora of health-related apps to the ‘snake oil salesmen of the 1860s’. Another article, just below that in the print edition, claimed that even yo-yo diets are better than not dieting at all (despite the supporting study having only been carried out in mice). Thus, I think it behooves us all to listen to the good advice of All The Year Round who maintained that ‘in the matter of diet, everyone should be guided by experience and not rely on the experience of others.’⁠10 As I come to the end of what has been a (mostly) sugar-free February, I am pleasantly surprised by what self-experimentation has taught me about my own body. So I’ll cross my fingers for continued resolve in the spirit of being attentive to my dietetic needs, as I contemplate taking on “meat-free March.”

Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown

Postdoctoral Researcher, Diseases of Modern Life

‘Notes About Health’ Bow Bells: a Magazine of General Literature and Art for Family Reading 13(18 Jan 1871)338 p.612.

‘Facts About Food’ Bow Bells: a Magazine of General Literature and Art for Family Reading 8(15 April 1868)194 p.286.

‘Medicinal and Nutritious Properties of Sugar Cane’ Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal 25(21 Jul 1932) p.195.

‘Corpulence’ The New Monthly Magazine 131(May 1864)521 pp.116-26. (p.116-17).

Ibid, p.116.

‘Sweets’ All the Year Round 5(8 Jun 1861)111 pp.246-49. (p.246).

Alfred Schofield, ‘The Great Food Question’ The Leisure Hour (Sept 1897) pp.736-740. (p.740).

‘Leaves from a London SketchBook’ Bow Bells: a Magazine of General Literature and Art for Family Reading 29(11 Jan 1895)367 pp.54-55. (p.54).

‘Diet and Dyspepsia’ All The Year Round 37(6 Feb 1886)897 pp.545-48. (p.548).

10 Ibid, p.546.

Goblins and Indigestion: the Tale of the Christmas Microbe

On my latest adventure into the periodical archives, I came across a fitting subject for a New Year’s post—the story of the Christmas microbe! This short story, published in Fun in 1898 follows the capers of a festive microorganism on his mission to bring christmas joy to an unlikely city merchant. The merchant, like Dickens’ Scrooge, is initially resistant to the delights of the holiday, shunning his children and wallowing in the memory of his dead wife. However, soon the Christmas microbe is on the case, a microorganism that is – it boasts – ‘not the sort you can kill with a sniff of carbolic [acid]’.⁠1 By slipping into his glass of grog, the Christmas microbe infects his merchant with Christmas cheer, turning him into ‘a perfect hotbed of Christmas germs’ who comes home laden with toys for his children.

This story is particularly interesting for my research as it articulates a vision of microbial contagion that is not pathogenic, but rather has a positive impact on society. Post germ theory, this story offers us a more benign view of the microscopic world, and one which speaks to the connection between gastrointestinal health and the emotions, or to what is now called the gut-brain axis. Indeed, the microbe establishes itself as a ‘cousin’ of indigestion, gesturing toward both its functional similarities, and to the overindulgences of the festive season. The opening of the story frames the microbe using the lexis of food and drink: ‘its face simply sparkled with fun and merriment, of the wassail bowl, baron of beef, and the steaming plum pudding,’—an association that recalls the ‘undigested bit of beef’, ‘blot of mustard’ or ‘crumb of cheese’ that Scrooge implicates in the appearance of the ghostly apparition that begins his own Christmas tale.

screen-shot-2017-01-02-at-21-26-05The microbe itself is depicted as a demon or goblin-like creature, which seems to be a common illustration for indigestion—in 1888, for example, Adolphus E. Bridger published a treatise on digestion entitled ‘The Demon of Dyspepsia’, while in 1892 Mary Bates Dimond wrote a poem, ‘Micrology Against Mythology’, which argued that the ‘fay and goblin [that] once held carnival of magic and of mirth’ had been replaced by the ‘arrogant Bacillus’.⁠2  Sharpe’s London Magazine of Entertainment and Instruction for General Reading published a morality in rhyme called ‘Molly’s Dream’, which too used a gobliny aesthetic to warn against indigestion. Playing on the homophonic goblin and gobblin’, the poem recounts the story of Molly, who suffers a nightmare after indulging in a late-night feast:

Molly, our Molly, had sat up rather late—
Molly, our Molly, cooking was her fate,
And she had been very hurried,
With pies and puddings flurried—
With this to stew, and that to steep,
Until at length she fell asleep,
And in her sleep she saw the dreadful goblin.⁠3

At length the goblin speaks to her, proclaiming itself ‘the imp of indigestion’:

“I’m the imp of indigestion!
Play—the horrible suggestion—
With folks’ insides, who love things rich:
You and I, Moll, can serve out sich.
I love you ‘cause you plague your race—
I love you for your fat, round face—
So you, sweetheart, shall be my own dear goblin.”

Molly awakens with a shriek; however, far from having made some Faustian deal or having been kidnapped by the Goblin king a la Bowie in Labyrinth, she is met with the realities of her lack of willpower.

In fact, in answer to our question,
The doctor said ’twas indigestion;
The gobbling often was the cause of goblin.

With this cheerful moral ringing in your ears, I’ll leave you to finish off the holiday chocolate. Happy New Year from the Diseases of Modern Life team. May your grog remain long infested with the joyous contagion of the Christmas microbe!

Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown
Postdoctoral Researcher, Diseases of Modern Life.

1 ‘A Christmas Microbe’ Fun 67(4 Jan 1898)1704 p.17.

2 Mary Bates Dimond, ‘Micrology Against Mythology’ The Independent, Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts 44(27 Oct 1892)229, p.1.

3 S. C. Hall, ‘Molly’s Dream’ Sharpe’s London Magazine of Entertainment and Instruction for General Reading 33(July 1868) p.91.

Containing Our ‘Multitudes’ and Negotiating Gastrointestinal Health in the Modern World

‘Even when we are alone, we are never alone,’ writes award-winning science writer, Ed Yong, in his new book I Contain Multitudes. ‘We exist,’ he argues, ‘in symbiosis […] every one of us is a zoo in our own right—a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world.’⁠1 His new book on the flora and fauna inside us, collectively known as our microbiota, grapples with the myriad ways in which organisms live in symbiotic relationships with each other and with the microscopic world.


Photo Credit:

He intersperses zoological road trips with historical anecdotes, intermediate biology, and experimental statistics, to shed light on the burgeoning field of microbiome studies and what it might mean for our future. This new biomedical research specialism has, in the last 10 years or so, posited links between our gut microorganisms and everything from the efficacy of cancer treatments, vulnerability to diabetes, and responsiveness of our immune systems, to inflammatory bowel disorders, autism, and anxiety.

Recent scientific studies have demonstrated that our unique microbiomes have an impact on our somatic, immune, and even psychiatric health. However, recognition of the centrality of our gastrointestinal health to our physical and emotional wellbeing is far from a modern phenomenon. Throughout history, medical, popular, and literary writers alike have all recognised the significance of diet and digestion—from Aristotle’s conflation of ‘normal digestion’ with health⁠2 to George Cheyne’s English Malady (1733) to William Beaumont’s Experiments and Observations on the Gastric Juice (1838). Gout, dyspepsia, and indigestion fill the pages of fiction from Shakespeare to Dickens, and this is particularly apparent in the literature of the nineteenth century; Sir Leicester Deadlock in Bleak House (1853) suffers from gout—‘a demon of the patrician order’, while Byron’s Don Juan (1823), William Gilbert’s The Mountebanks (1892), and Robert Bulwer-Lytton’s Lucile (1860) all make mention of indigestion. Indeed, the nineteenth century saw a perhaps exponential increase in narratives concerned with digestive health. The interdependence between disease and the gastrointestinal region was increasingly being highlighted, and the connections between digestion and the emotions were being repositioned in relation to the demands and requirements of modern life. Physician J. Milner Fothergill, for example, argued that town life bred dyspepsia, producing petite, over-sensitive women, who read novels and couldn’t eat wheat.⁠3  A damning indictment of modernity—and of at least half the academics I know. The central importance of gastrointestinal health within the mind-body system was continually developing throughout the century in dialogue with burgeoning modernity and its scientific paradigm shifts.

Germ theory and the development of immunology with its martial metaphors and emphasis on personal and public hygiene, had a lasting legacy, ostensibly leading, in the twentieth century, to the idea that humans are ‘too clean’—encapsulated by the many misconstructions of Prof. David Strachan’s ‘hygiene hypothesis’ in the 1980s. This was the idea that increasing incidences of allergies and autoimmune disorders might be traced to our avoidance of pathogens in childhood. In reality, it is the lack of exposure to vital microbial symbioses that just as crucially underpins this increase. Indeed, recent scholars have suggested a renaming of this phenomenon to better reflect its intended meaning.⁠4 As Yong argues, we need to disabuse ourselves of the reductive categories of invading “bad” and resident “good” microbes,⁠5 ushered in by the warfare-inflected discourses of late nineteenth century immunology. However, although germ theory certainly did inspire a more military approach to understanding disease transmission, explorations of gastrointestinal health in the nineteenth century from an interdisciplinary perspective reveal a more complicated understanding of health.

Medical treatise and periodical essays in the nineteenth century are replete with discussions of the ‘war’ against disease—a metaphor that extends beyond the immune system to encompass the scientific ‘battles’ of medical research—however, there is also a sense of symbiosis. Yong’s seemingly modern notion of a ‘multi-species collective’ sits alongside Henry Gabbett’s notion of microorganisms as ‘invisible guests’,⁠6 M. Easter-Ross’s more democratic ‘joint tenants’⁠7, or the Saturday Review’s proposition that ‘every man is a mere firm, a Homo & Co.’⁠8 H. G. Wells’s 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds, reveals the power of a hard-won symbiosis when the Martians are killed by bacteria—our ‘microscopic allies’.

‘Our Gallant Defenders; or the Brave Bacteria and the Bold Bad Bacilli’, Judy, or the London Serio-Comic Journal, 3 Sept 1890, p.116. 

As Wells’s narrator explains, ‘by the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth’.⁠9 This blurs the language of microbe morality suggesting that while they are ‘germs’ that we ‘struggle’ against, they might also be friends and allies against invading species. Rather than the taxonomically “good” and “bad” bacteria of the modern probiotics industry—or indeed nineteenth century satirical plays like ‘Our Gallant Defenders: the Brave Bacteria and the Bold Bad Bacilli’⁠10 (1890)—Wells’s story posits a more fluid understanding of microbial-human interactions, in line with Yong’s call for considering terms like ‘parasitic’ or ‘pathogenic’ as relative and context-dependent, rather than tied to taxonomy.

Yong argues that terms like this are more akin to states of being, feelings, emotions, or behaviours: ‘they’re adjectives and verbs, rather than nouns, they describe how partners relate to one another.’⁠11 This calls for a reconsideration of these organisms in a perhaps counter-intuitive way. If we’ve learnt anything from discussions in PopSci, we’ve learnt that anthropomorphising microorganisms is problematic. In the nineteenth century, parasitologists framed parasites as small animals in order to legitimise their specialism. As Nobel prize winning parasitologist Ronald Ross argued,

‘They are none of your vulgar vegetable bacteria […] they are animals and not vegetables.’

He even suggested that unlike ‘antiquated’ bacteria, they possessed a willingness to ‘show themselves and be admired’.⁠12 This kind of rhetoric is widely agreed to be damaging and confusing for the public understanding of science. However, Yong’s book suggests to me that there might be mileage in considering a more anthropocentric heuristic. In his book, he avoids terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’, but employs the equally problematic frameworks of ‘hero’ and ‘villain’. The difference appears to be one of semantics. As we know from popular culture’s long-standing love of superhero films (recently brought to you by Marvel, DC, and J.J.Abrams), the backstories usually reveal that the villain and hero have more in common with each other than they think—and usually very complicated relationships with the traditional frameworks of morality. They suggest that there is no such thing as ‘intrinsically’ good or bad people, only good or bad behaviours. Surely this is a more anthropocentric outlook than any? While microbes do not have morals, or feelings, or concepts of evil, we cannot help but narrativise their actions. And while Yong takes pains to point out that microbes are simply doing what they can to live and multiply, the symbiotic relationships they have with us—whether mutualistic or pathogenic—underpin our entire existence. It might be a bad idea to impose our own concept of ethics on these organisms, but it might be equally damaging to ignore the reality that behaviours and partnerships are context-dependent. As we’ve learnt from recent studies into the efficacy of helminths in treating inflammatory bowel disorders, one person’s parasite might be another person’s beneficial symbiont.⁠13

Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown
Postdoctoral Researcher, Diseases of Modern Life.

1 Ed Yong, I Contain Multitudes (London: Penguin, 2016) p.3.

2 L. M. De Rijk, Aristotle: Semantics and Ontology Vol 1 (Leiden: Brill, 2002) p.383.

3 J. Milner Fothergill, ‘The Effects of Town Life Upon the Human Body’ The National Review 10(Oct 1887)56 pp.166-72.

4 See: S. F. Bloomfield, R. Stawell-Smith, R. W. R Crevel, and  Pickup, ‘Too Clean, or Not Too Clean: the Hygiene Hypothesis and Home Hygiene’ Clinical and Experimental Allergy 34(2006)4 pp.406-425. <;

5 See: Ed Yong, ‘Microbes Have No Morals’ Aeon, 4th August 2016 <;

6 Henry. S. Gabbett, ‘Beneficent Germs’ The Nineteenth Century 45(1899)268 p.940.

7 ‘Biblical Physics’, John O’Groat Journal, 30 December 1842, p.4.

8 ‘Homo & Co.’ Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art 83(1897)2152 pp.85-86.

9 H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds (Rookhope: Aziloth Books, 2010) p.112.

10 ‘Our Gallant Defenders; or the Brave Bacteria and the Bold, Bad Bacilli’ Judy, or the London Serio-Comic Journal, 3 Sept 1890, p.116.

11 Yong, p.80.

12 Ronald Ross,  ‘Malaria and the Mosquito’ Pioneer,  Saturday 3 August 1895, p.3.

13 See: Moises Velasquez-Manoff, ‘The Parasite Underground’ The New York Times Magazine, 16 June 2016. <;