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In praise of dirt - the history of cleanliness

Author: Tamer M. Fouad, M.D. | Submitted: January 02, 2010. Updated: January 02, 2010.

Tamer M. Fouad, M.D.'s avatar

Last week an interesting article was published in the Economist magazine which cited several scientific claims about the advantages of human exposure to dirt!1

The article starts by outlining a history of the changing concept of cleanliness and its association with health and disease. France’s King Henri IV, is reported to have been advised by his physician not to meet with a Duke who had reportedly taken a bath. The article also mentions that Queen Elizabeth I of England bathed only once a month while her successor only washed his fingers.

It then goes on to recount the influence of American soapmakers, such as Procter & Gamble, in the 1930s who wanted to market their products to housewives by sponsoring drama series later known as soap operas.

Several interesting books are cited:
“Clean - a history of personal hygiene and purity”. The author Virginia Smith is an honorary fellow of the Centre for History in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

“Why Dirt Is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends” by Mary Ruebush who is an American immunologist argues that children need to be exposed to germs in order to strengthen their immune system.

An article by Christopher Lowry at Bristol University who discovered that Mycobacterium vaccae, present in mud, stimulated the production of serotonin in the brain, effectively acting like an antidepressant and making people happier.2

Tamer M. Fouad, M.D.. In praise of dirt - the history of cleanliness. Doctors Lounge Website. Available at: Accessed February 02 2023.


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January 12, 2010 04:00 AM

Dear Dr.Tamer,

Very interesting stuff!! Let me add a joke which came to my mind i read through your article….Mom tells nine year old son arriving for dinner, ” Did you have your bath?”. Reply: “mom, only dirty people take bath!!”

Queen Elizabeth I of England could bathe once a month because of the climate she lived in. If she were living in the tropics, she might have changed her ways!. Bath tubs are OK for cold climates.Hot climates need running water!

Dr.M.Aroon kamath.