In the fall semester of 2010 I worked with freshmen Honors students at the University of Connecticut on an exhibit about the convergence of Mark Twain and H. W. Conn in Twain’s work “3,000 Years Among the Microbes.” The exhibit was displayed in the Homer Babbidge Library at UConn from after Thanksgiving break until just before Christmas. The exhibit included examples of Conn’s books including Conn’s book that Twain used as a resource for his story, “The Story of Germ Life.” It also featured quotes from Mark Twain, examples of Conn’s dairy microbiology research reports, descriptions of the lives of two men, and slides with photographs and newspaper clippings from their times.
← The Honors class after setting up the exhibit.
On his summer holiday in 1905, Samuel Clemens wrote a story entitled “3000 Years Among the Microbes” to get some long-standing ideas on paper. Though Twain was initially very excited to write the story and wrote over 100,000 words, the creative spark soon left him and the story was left unfinished.
In this work Twain used microbes to tell a story much like “Gulliver’s Travels,” satirizing the society and politics of his day as well as man’s inflated notions of his place in the universe. To tell his tale accurately, he turned to the most famous microbiologist of his time, Herbert W. Conn. H. W. Conn was a professor of Biology at Wesleyan University and was world famous for his research in dairy microbiology and his public health efforts in dairy hygiene and milk pasteurization, a controversial issue at the turn of the last century. A prolific writer of science for the public, Conn’s books were read by Twain and his influence on Twain’s story is obvious.
The Library exhibit contained photos and items from the archives of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center showing Conn’s scientific contribution to Connecticut through his work at the Storrs Agricultural Station and his founding of the Department of Bacteriology at the Storrs Agricultural College, forerunner of the University of Connecticut. Photos from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair showed the scene of Conn’s dairy microbiology exhibit there. Photos from Twain’s life in Connecticut showed his integration with the intellectual life of the state. These two men’s lives and works came together at a time very much like our own and this exhibit connected their world with ours.
Photo courtesy of Nancy Eve Cohen, WNPR
A celebration of the exhibit featured a reading from “3,000 Years Among the Microbes” by retired Professor of Dramatic Arts Jerry Krasser and me.
“They are quite distinct, vividly distinct, for it is a fine day, and they are so immensely magnified that they look to be fully fingernail high.” (From “3,000 Years Among the Microbes”)
An article about the exhibit appeared in UConn Today.
The UConn Dodd Center’s blog post about the exhibit
“Herbert Conn: Mark Twain’s Microbiologist Muse,” an article that appeared in “Microbe,” the publication of the American Society for Microbiology that describes Herbert Conn’s relation to Twain’s story
UConn was designated an ASM Milestones in Microbiology site since Dr. Conn was one of the founders of ASM in 1899 and he did important work in dairy microbiology while at the Storrs Agricultural Station located on the campus of the Connecticut Agricultural College, later to become the University of Connecticut.