Germ Theory, pietre dish filled with germs, held by doc with gloved hands.

What Germ Theory Can Teach Us about Trauma Awareness 

Have you recently washed your hands? Had a flu shot? Used Neosporin? Taken an antibiotic? Had a medical procedure and were confident the instruments used had been sterilized? Why? The answer probably is that you are aware that germs need to be killed, otherwise you can get sick or have an infection spread.

How would you feel about becoming pregnant or having your significant other become pregnant, knowing she had a 50-50 chance of dying immediately after giving birth? Up until Germ Theory became accepted, doctors delivering babies would go from woman to woman without washing their hands and therefore spread germs that ultimately killed approximately 50% of the women.

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Germ Theory was presented to the medical professionals. At first the research was scorned because they found it hard to believe that these microscopic organisms were actually the cause of so many illnesses. It meant they had to change their ways of practicing, like washing their hands before surgeries and sterilizing their instruments. Imagine how hard it must have been with these medical professionals to realize they actually had caused so many people to die because they did not have this information! Much of this story is depicted in the 1936 movie, “The Story of Louis Pasteur.”

It took quite a while from the introduction of Germ Theory to the creation of antibiotics. For example, in 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic: penicillin. However, that took over a decade before it was regularly used. Penicillin was introduced in 1945. 1940 to 1962 is known as the Golden Era of Antibiotics where many of the medicine still used today were introduced to the market, 100 years after Germ Theory was introduced.

The impact of the information from neuroscience about the brain and the impact of trauma is considered as significant as the impact of understanding germs. Both were revolutionary!

For example, the idea that children could be emotionally traumatized was first brought to light by Lenore Terr in her groundbreaking research in the 1970s documented in her book Too Scared to Cry. In it she describes how she realized that children who had been cruelly buried alive in their school bus by two men planning to collect ransom for their freedom were at first believed to be fine because they were not physically harmed. However it soon became apparent that they had many reactions and ultimately were diagnosed as having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

And in the late 1990s the first ACEs studies were made public providing evidence that adversity in childhood was directly correlated to many negative mental and physical health outcomes later in life.

“The new science on Adverse Childhood Experiences and toxic stress has given us a new lens through which to understand the human story; why we suffer; how we parent, raise, and mentor our children; how we might better prevent, treat, and manage illness in our medical care system; and how we can recover and heal on a deeper level than we thought possible.”Donna Jackson Nakazawa.

I think we all can be very grateful for the scientists and researchers who courageously discovered the impact of germs despite severe criticism by colleagues, giving us ways to treat infections. Likewise there are researchers like Lenore Terr and the and the authors of the ACEs study. It is because of these discoveries that we are physically and mentally healthier today. And as the science of trauma grows, we can find ways to prevent trauma from happening in the first place and significant ways to meaningfully treat trauma and PTSD.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. If the information about Germ Theory is new to you, what are some of your reactions? How does it make you feel to realize that the scientists who discovered the existence of germs have directly impacted your life and the lives of your loved ones?
  2. How has the information about the nature of trauma and what being trauma-informed means to us in LGI impacted you? What feelings did you have learning about this?
  3. Notice the degrees to which you experience gratitude for all this new knowledge and the many ways we can now protect ourselves physically because of the knowledge of Germ  Theory.

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