Review: ‘The Stolen Bacillus’ by H. G. Wells

‘The Stolen Bacillus’ is an 1894 short story by the British writer H. G. Wells (1866-1946). Between the mid-1890s and the mid-1900s, Wells wrote much of his best work, with a strong commitment to storytelling perfectly wedded to interesting ideas and theories.

To summarise the plot of ‘The Stolen Bacillus’: a man, identified only as a Bacteriologist, is showing a visitor his various germ samples in his home laboratory, telling him about how some of the bacilli in his possession are largely undetectable but have the power to kill many people.

This visitor turns out to be an Anarchist, who – when his host is talking to his wife in another room – pockets a vial of what he believes to be Asiatic cholera, with the intention of starting a deadly epidemic in London by poisoning the city’s water supply with it.

The Bacteriologist, realising what’s happened, chases after the Anarchist, who drinks the contents of the vial himself, hoping to become a martyr to his cause. Meanwhile, the Bacteriologist’s wife, Minnie, chases after her husband with his hat and shoes, which he had forgotten to put on in his haste to pursue the Anarchist.

When the Bacteriologist catches up with the Anarchist, the latter proudly tells the Bacteriologist that he has drunk the poison, before running away. The Bacteriologist tells his wife that he exaggerated the lethality of the specimens in his possession, in order to impress the Anarchist, although he didn’t know about the man’s political allegiances at the time. He also confides to her that the vial contains a harmless bacterium which will merely turn the Anarchist a shade of blue in due course, if it has the same effect on him as it has on animals.

‘The Stolen Bacillus’ is a light story, which is as much farce as it is science fiction. The wife chasing after the Bacteriologist, in a humorous echo of the Bacteriologist’s own pursuit of the Anarchist, to say nothing of the comic chorus provided by Wells’s go-to Cockney cockers who comment on the wife’s actions, all mark this out as a humorous tale. After all, it’s worth remembering that the Bacteriologist is chasing after the Anarchist in his socks.

‘The Stolen Bacillus’ is an example of a short story with a twist ending. While the slapstick involving the wife with her husband’s hat and shoes is ongoing, we are nevertheless gripped by the exciting and dangerous possibility that the Anarchist may succeed in his aims, and imperil the health of the whole city. It is only when the vial’s contents are revealed to be harmless, and the Anarchist swallows them down, that we realise there was never any real danger.

But what is striking about ‘The Stolen Bacillus’ is the way in which the peril (or perceived peril) of the Anarchist’s plot contrasts sharply with the comedic tone of the story. Here’s Wells describing Minnie’s view of her husband’s eccentric behaviour:

Minnie, hearing the door slam violently, ran in alarm to the window. Down the street a slender man was getting into a cab. The Bacteriologist, hatless, and in his carpet slippers, was running and gesticulating wildly towards this group. One slipper came off, but he did not wait for it. ‘He has gone mad!’ said Minnie; ‘it’s that horrid science of his’; and, opening the window, would have called after him. The slender man, suddenly glancing round, seemed struck with the same idea of mental disorder. He pointed hastily to the Bacteriologist, said something to the cabman, the apron of the cab slammed, the whip swished, the horse’s feet clattered, and in a moment cab, and Bacteriologist hotly in pursuit, had receded up the vista of the roadway and disappeared round the corner.

Perhaps, then, what is most notable about this short tale is that the scientist in it is not mad, merely absent-minded. Contrasted with those earlier scientists in their laboratories, Victor Frankenstein and Henry Jekyll, the Bacteriologist is not intent on using his scientific specimens to bring about dramatic change. Instead, it is an outsider, the Anarchist, who attempts to do so.


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