Movie microbes under the microscope

Christmas is coming, and with it a TV schedule packed full of films. Old favourites and new features will keep us entertained throughout Christmas and New Year, no doubt. But did you know that alongside the Robert De Niros and Meryl Streeps of any given time, microbes have been movie stars since the earliest days of cinema?

1895-1930

Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch and other scientists had provided convincing evidence for the germ theory of disease in the later parts of the 19th century. The Lumière brothers held the first public screening of projected motion pictures in 1895 and not long afterwards, scientists began attaching movie cameras to microscopes. These scientific films were exhibited for public entertainment and soon film-makers began creating their own popular movies featuring magnified microbes.

The public acceptance of germ theory and fear of microbes, particularly in food, drove the popularity of films depicting the previously invisible wriggling, writhing aliens.

1931-1940

By 1931, film-makers began prominently featuring the bacteriologists who studied these killer pathogens in motion pictures. Paul de Kruif’s best-selling 1926 book The Microbe Hunters catalogued the scientific exploits and adventures of Louis Pasteur, Paul Ehrlich, Walter Reed and other pioneering microbiologists. de Kruif had also provided scientific advice for Sinclair Lewis’ 1925 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, later made into a film, Arrowsmith, which followed the exploits of a fictional scientist who studies a plague outbreak in an exotic country and who also conducts bacteriological experiments in the backwoods of the American West.

This started a trend for bio-pic films depicting self-sacrificing bacteriologists and led to a series of films in which scientists travelled to disease outbreaks in exotic locations or retreated to remote wildernesses in order to conduct experiments in isolation. Arrowsmith also encouraged the use of the moral dilemma to introduce drama, which featured heavily in subsequent films.

During this period, the spectre of censorship also raised its head. Scenes discussing animal experimentation or venereal disease were threatened with the cutting room floor.

1941-1960

The fad for movies about heroic bacteriologists did not survive the 1940s. During the Cold War, microbiologists were no longer perceived as brave scientists attempting to cure diseases; instead the public viewed them as mercenaries betraying their scientific principles by using their knowledge to create horrific biological weapons.

1961-1970

By the 1960s microbiologists had turned into movie villains. And with the success of the first James Bond film in 1962, a flood of ‘super-spies’ hit the screen, some of them on missions to prevent the release of weaponized infectious agents produced in the Soviet Union, by Western scientists, or within the lairs of ‘super-villains’.

1971-1990

Moving away from the bio-weapons theme of the 1960s, the 1970s and 1980s film-makers created fictional infectious agents that did not cause illness or death. Instead, the weaponized pathogens in these films had a radical transformative effect on the hosts’ minds and bodies. In other words, infected people turned into monsters. Monster-spawning plagues became common in horror films of the next several decades, especially when germs were combined with the theme of GMOs.

1991-Present

Films featuring viral or bacterial plagues are still being made but the microbes have become metaphors for wider social issues such as conformity, consumerism and classism.

Sensationalized news stories about killer E. coli and antibiotic resistant “superbugs” alongside dire warnings about emerging viruses in popular books, like Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague (1994), caused an increased anxiety about microbes in the 1990s. In the last two decades, there have been two prominent films that have specifically addressed the serious threat posed by emerging infectious diseases. In many ways Outbreak (1995) and Contagion (2011) recall the heroic microbiologist films of the 1930s with their plots featuring virologists saving the world from devastating pandemics. Both of these films raised awareness of emerging infectious diseases far more than any popular science book ever could.

Ultimately, the same “attraction and repulsion” that drew early cinema audiences to films of microorganisms are the same aspects that still fascinate modern audiences. The technology of cinema adds an unreality to microbes that makes them appear both beautiful and disturbing at the same time. For this reason, it is a good bet that we will continue to see microbes in our movies for years to come.

This article is adapted from a piece written by David A. Kirby, of the Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, University of Manchester, for the Microbiologist magazine.



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