Mysophobia: History Of The Fear Of Germs, Washing Hands, And Famous Germaphobes
A paramedic wears a protective mask and complete sterile dressing to avoid contact with COVID-19. (Photo by Olivier Matthys/Getty Images)
"Mysophobia" is a more polite term than "neat freak" to describe someone with an irrational fear of contamination, dirt, or germs. In the days of vigilant hand-washing and self-isolation, however, it's starting to look like a more reasonable lifestyle than we've previously regarded it to be. Let's examine the fear of dirt and germs more closely.
What Does Mysophobia Mean?
The earliest known use of the word "mysophobia" occurred in 1879, a time when the "germ theory" was being heavily debated in the scientific community. It combines two Greek words—mysos, meaning "uncleanliness," and phobia, meaning "fear"—although the more widely used and casual "germaphobia" appeared on the scene only about 20 years later.
What Is Germ Theory?
It took us a while to figure out what germs were and how they worked because for most of history, microscopes didn't exist. Still, physicians in the Middle Ages suggested that diseases could be caused by tiny invaders in the body. In 1762, Marcus von Plenciz proposed that each disease was caused by a specific kind of minute organism that entered the body via the nose, mouth, or skin. However, he was unable to prove his theory—in fact, he was laughed at in the scientific community for offering such a preposterous idea—but they all died from the Plague in short order, so who's laughing now?
The Miasma Theory Overshadowed The Germ Theory
Although we know now that Von Plenciz was right about germs and their connection to illness, his ideas were overshadowed by another theory that had been discussed much longer, the miasma theory. It was the idea that illnesses were caused by foul-smelling gases or vapors that were breathed into the nose, and for a long time, it was viewed as fact. This is why we see fresh-smelling flowers used as remedies in medieval medicine.
Germs In The Late 1800s
Louis Pasteur's work with fermentation and bacteria, Robert Koch's research linking bacteria to diseases like cholera, and Joseph Lister's advocacy of sanitation and sterilization in the hospital setting all helped to bring the idea of germ theory to the mainstream. With the knowledge that our world was filled with unseen contagions that could easily spread from person to person, germs became a reality of life. Although most people had a basic understanding of how germs spread, it took a global pandemic to reinforce the idea of using hygiene to stop germs.
The Spanish Flu Pandemic
In 1918, a strain of the H1N1 virus nicknamed Spanish Flu infected nearly 500 million people across the globe, killing about 50 million of them. Although bacteriology was still in its infancy, healthcare workers began taking precautions to prevent the spread of the unseen germs from one person to the next, wearing masks, washing their hands, and sterilizing their instruments. This is all standard practice today, but they were fairly new procedures at the time.
Fear Becomes Phobia
For the general public, the idea that there were tiny beings all around us just waiting to make us sick was a terrifying one. While most people quickly got over their willies and went about their lives, some people let the idea of germs consume their thoughts, so afraid of coming into contact with a germ that they took extreme measures to prevent it. They washed their hands obsessively, refused to touch door handles and railings, and ran screaming if someone sneezed near them. For these people, the fear of germs turned into the sort of irrational fear that psychologists call a phobia.
Celebrity Germaphobes: It's A Howard Thing
One of the most well-known cases of mysophobia was billionaire aviator Howard Hughes, an eccentric who also suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder that compelled him to take elaborate measures to avoid contact with germs. He was certainly not alone: Brilliant inventor Nikola Tesla became obsessive about avoiding germs, developing strange and rigorous hygiene routines, after contracting cholera as a teen.
Comedian Howie Mandel has been open about his struggles with mysophobia. When he hosted primetime game show Deal Or No Deal, he refused to shake contestants' hands, preferring to bump fists instead. According to reports, the reason for his famously shaved his head was to ensure that germs wouldn't cling to his hair. Radio personality Howard Stern is also a confessed mysophone, claiming that it keeps him from socializing as much as you'd expect from a shock jock. Huh. Lot o' Howards here. What's up with that?
Germaphobes On TV
In modern times, mysophobia has become a cultural shorthand that lets audiences know that a character is eccentric and troubled. One of the most famous of these characters is TV's Monk, portrayed by Tony Shalhoub as a private police homicide consultant with intense mysophobia, a condition that factors into his work. The character of Emma Pillsbury, the high school counselor on TV’s Glee, was also plagued by a case of mysophobia that impacted her romantic relationships. In The Big Bang Theory, Dr. Sheldon Cooper is a mysophobic scientist who is often faced with situations that force him to face his fear. Unfortunately, he's not afraid of corny jokes.
Tags: germ theory | phobia | plague | science
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