The Bacteriologist has a visitor to his laboratory, a pale stranger who arrives with a letter of introduction from a good friend of the scientist. The scientist shows his visitor the cholera bacillus under a microscope and they talk about the disease. The visitor is particularly interested in a vial containing living bacteria, and the scientist describes the power of cholera, saying what a terrible epidemic could be caused if a tube such as the one he holds were to be opened into the water supply.

The scientist's wife calls him away for a moment; when the scientist returns, the visitor is ready to leave. As soon as the visitor has gone, however, the scientist realizes the vial of bacteria is missing, that the visitor must have stolen it. He runs out in a panic, sees the visitor's cab leaving, and hails another cab to give chase. The scientist's wife, horrified by his inappropriate dress and hurry, follows in a third cab, with her husband's shoes and coat and hat.

We shift to the point of view of the visitor in his cab. He has indeed stolen the vial. He is an Anarchist who plans to release the bacteria into London's water supply. His motivation is fame: he feels he has been neglected by the world, and now he will reveal his power and importance. In the speeding cab, however, he accidentally breaks the glass vial.

He decides to become a human vector. He swallows what is left in the vial, and stops the cab, realizing that he no longer needs to flee. When the scientist catches up and confronts him, the Anarchist gleefully announces what he has done. The scientist allows him to walk away, and tells his wife that the man has ingested the stolen bacteria.

There is a twist: the vial, it turns out, did not contain cholera, but a strange new microbe the Bacteriologist had been studying, the only known effect of which is to make the skin of the animals exposed to it turn bright blue. The Bacteriologist reluctantly puts on his coat and returns home with his wife, complaining that he will now have to culture the bacillus all over again.


This story is a chilling satire about the potential role of scientists in facilitating bioterrorism. The Bacteriologist is so pleased with his own work that he gives the Anarchist access to it, and in expounding on the power of the cholera bacillus (which he feels he has in his own power), he gives the Anarchist the information he needs to recognize bioforms as an effective weapon. The Anarchist's words are all too familiar; he says that others are "blind fools to use bombs when this kind of thing is attainable" (5).

When his first plan fails and he swallows the vial's contents himself, the Anarchist becomes a suicidal martyr to his cause and no longer needs to escape his pursuers. He triumphantly confronts them and then wanders off into the city, "carefully jostling his infected body against as many people as possible" (15).

Fortuitously, the scientist has been boastfully dishonest about the bacteria he was showing off, so that the epidemic will be not cholera but something presumably less lethal and comically visible. Disturbingly, though, we realize that the scientist's motivation for chasing the thief was not to prevent a deadly outbreak, but to avoid the trouble of making another culture of his interesting new bacterium.

Thanks to the Anarchist, London has now become the scientist's laboratory: "things might look blue for this civilised city," he says (16). The scientist is revealed, in his lack of concern for ethics, as being an unwitting agent of anarchy himself. In the final paragraph, he submits to the civilizing influence of his wife, and puts on his coat, not because he cares about appearing decent but because he couldn't be bothered to resist her. He just wants to get back to his lab.


First published in the magazine, The Pall Mall Budget, June 21, 1894.

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The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents



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