When I worked in a lab, I spent my time investigating bacteria that lived in the soil. Dirt, or rather the things that live in it, were the focus of my attention for many years. Needless to say, when I was asked if I’d like to go to a storytelling event about ‘dirt’ in its many forms, I said yes.
The event centred around stories told by members of the Crick Crack Club, a group of professional storytellers who travel the country spinning yarns. Our evening was split into two parts: the first featured Sarah Rundle, who began by telling us several Anglo-Saxon riddles from the Exeter Book, a tenth-century collection of poetry. The riddles all contained double entendres around the penis, but were in fact about mundane objects such as an onion or a key – or were they riddles centred around mundane objects that were in fact about the penis?
Sarah then recounted the story of Dr Ignaz Semmelweis. We learnt about the development of the state hospital in Vienna and the outrageously high infant mortality rate that occurred in its maternity ward. The ward was actually split into two clinics. The first had a mortality rate of ~10%, the second a lower rate of 4%. This was widely known throughout the city and women pleaded to not be admitted into the first clinic. The only notable difference between the two was that the first was used to teach medical students and the second was staffed by midwives.
Through meticulous investigation and deduction, Dr Semmelweis realised that the autopsies the students were undertaking between births were the cause of the child deaths. By getting students to wash their hands in weak bleach, he succeeded in reducing the mortality rate by 90%. All this was done twenty years before Louis Pasteur had formulated his ideas on germ theory.
Semmelweis was undoubtedly a pioneer and his story is well worth investigating. Sarah’s description of his (ultimately tragic) life and work was sensitive, unflinching and thoroughly engaging. The small audience sat in rapt attention, wincing at the descriptions of life in a 19th century hospital and laughing at the absurdity of those who dismissed Semmelweis’ work as quackery. Ridiculed by his contemporaries, he died in a mental hospital, most likely as result of a severe beating.
The remainder of the event took us to a darkened room where Ben Haggarty told folk stories from around the world all revolving around the dirt theme. Tales were told of 12th century Iraqi kings, the birth of the world, explanations of why the police are called ‘the filth’ and how a giant made out of faeces fought the Viking god Thor (and lost). Quite varied, I think you’ll agree. Ben is an outstanding performer – switching characters, continents and centuries in the blink of an eye.
Benjamin Thompson is a writer at the Wellcome Trust.