Smith, Virginia Sarah

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Smith, Virginia Sarah


Married John Cumming; children: Kate. Education: Edinburgh University, M.Phil.; London School of Economics and Social Policy, Ph.D.


Home—London, England. Office—London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Keppel St., London WC1E 7HT, England. E-mail—[email protected]


Freelance historian and writer. Has worked as a teacher, medical receptionist, book reviewer, and contributor to dictionaries, including the Dictionary of National Biography. Honorary fellow, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.


Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor to books, including The Sexual Dynamics of History, London Feminist Group (London, England), 1983; Patients and Practitioners: Lay Perceptions of Medicine in Pre-Industrial Society, edited by Roy Porter, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1985; and Medical Fringe and Medical Orthodoxy, 1750-1850, edited by W.F. Bynum and Roy Porter, Croom Helm (London, England), 1987. Contributor to journals, including Society for the Social History of Medicine Bulletin.


An honorary fellow at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Virginia Sarah Smith has conducted extensive research on notions and practices of hygiene through history. Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity presents an overview and analysis of this subject, from ancient times to the contemporary era.

As Smith shows, human societies have thought of cleanliness in both physical and symbolic terms. "A dense mass of human history clusters around the belief that dirt is ‘bad,’" Smith writes on her Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity Web site, "and that dirt-removal (cleansing) is always ‘good.’" Whether in ancient or modern times, "inner (and outer) bodily ‘cleansing’ is ultimately connected to the more profound principle of ‘wholesomeness’ within the general system of homeostasis that balances and sustains all bodily functions."

The term hygiene, Smith explains, comes from the ancient Greeks, who honored the goddess of health, Hygeia. By about 400 BCE, hygiene in Greece had become a specialization of medicine that sought "to control every aspect of the human environment—air, diet, sleep, work, exercise, the evacuations, passions of the mind—and to incorporate them into a ‘sanitary’ or wholesome way of life." This rational emphasis on well-being greatly impressed the Romans, who considered cleanliness and grooming to be a civic virtue and invested in infrastructures that promoted cleanliness, such as public baths and aqueducts. Indeed, Roman urbanization, for Smith, was made possible by such projects. "Urban Roman life would have been inconceivable," she writes, "and a lot more foetid and visibly filthy, without the various public baths, latrines, fountains and taps served by the Roman aqueducts."

The spread of Christianity, however, brought different concepts of cleanliness. In contrast to classical models that appreciated bodily health and attractiveness, Christianity associated the physical with sin, and emphasized spiritual purity and asceticism. Indeed, early saints often neglected their bodies to focus on their souls. As Smith puts it, "Judeo-Christian asceticism insisted that the cleansing of the inner soul was absolutely imperative, whereas the cleansing of the outer body was a worldly distraction, and its ornamentation a positive sin."

The medieval world is often depicted as a place of utter filth, swarming with lice and other vermin and filled with sweat, excrement, and rotten smells. Yet Smith argues that this image is far from accurate. As incomes rose in the Middle Ages, families worked hard to be clean and attractive. They took care to wash and groom their bodies and to wear clean clothing. The biggest change from the Roman era, in Smith's view, was the introduction of close-fitting underwear—which may have been a response to cold climates, or to Christian teachings. These garments, Smith explains, can trap sweat and dirt against the skin, contributing to unpleasant odors.

Smith traces the developing view of hygiene in Europe through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, discussing the renewed interest in pubic hygiene in England, France, and Germany; the commercialization of hygiene and grooming; and hygiene as a moral crusade in early modern England. By the twentieth century, she writes, personal hygiene had "reached the stage of a general consensus." Winifred Gallagher, writing in the Wilson Quarterly, observed: "Although Smith calls modernity the ‘most grimly fascinating’ and best documented era in the history of cleanliness, her heart is clearly back in the good old days of the Egyptians and Puritans. She does make the interesting point, however, that even the reader's notions of cleanliness have probably changed over his or her lifetime. Pollution has become the new filth, for example, and the ‘green’ movement upholds the new purity."

Financial Times contributor Caroline Davidson appreciated the ambition of Clean, but felt that book failed to cohere sufficiently, describing its effect as that of "a succession of intriguing but unconnected snapshots." Davidson also observed that Smith's focus on the relatively rich and privileged omits what could have been a fascinating discussion of how people with few resources manage to remain clean. Though Library Journal reviewer Scott H. Silverman made a similar point about Smith's focus, the reviewer described Clean as a "smart and witty tour of the quest for clean body (and spirit)."



Smith, Virginia Sarah, Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2007.


Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, January 1, 2008, R.M. Mullner, review of Clean, p. 852.

Contemporary Review, December 22, 2007, review of Clean, p. 533.

Financial Times, June 9, 2007, Caroline Davidson, "Dirty Habits; How Did People Keep Themselves Clean in the Past? It's an Interesting Question, but One That This Book Fails to Answer," p. 35.

Library Journal, August 1, 2007, Scott H. Silverman, review of Clean, p. 105.

New Scientist, May 26, 2007, Claire Ainsworth, review of Clean, p. 56.

Nursing Standard, November 7, 2007, Debby Holloway, review of Clean, p. 31.

Publishers Weekly, May 14, 2007, review of Clean, p. 47.

Wilson Quarterly, January 1, 2008, Winifred Gallagher, "Bath and Body Works," p. 89.


Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity Web site, (April 22, 2008).

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