“The Stolen Bacillus” is a short story by H. G. Wells, first published in the Pall Mall Budget on 21 June 1894, and subsequently reprinted in The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents (1895) and The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (1911).[a] It is the first work of fiction Wells signed under his own name, having previously published anonymously or under a pseudonym.
Told as a third-person narrative, the story begins as a bacteriologist is showing a stained and killed preparation of cholera bacteria to an unnamed visitor. Unknown to the bacteriologist, his visitor is an anarchist, and has forged a letter of introduction so that he can gain access to the scientist’s laboratory; his aim is to secure some of the live cholera bacilli, which he intends to release into the public water supply.
The bacteriologist shows his visitor a vial which he claims contains live cholera bacteria, and while the bacteriologist is distracted by his wife knocking at the laboratory door the visitor secretes the tube in his pocket. Hurriedly, the visitor makes his excuses and leaves in a cab, but the bacteriologist realises after a few moments what has happened and chases after the man in another cab, with his wife in hot pursuit carrying the shoes and hat her husband has forgotten in his haste. Their three cabs race through the streets of London, and in the violence of the chase the vial breaks. The anarchist realises that he will now be the first to die, but determines to infect as many others as he can by jostling against the passersby as he walks off out of view towards Waterloo Bridge.
When his wife catches up with him the bacteriologist laughs, although remarking “It is really very serious, though”. It transpires that in a foolish attempt to impress his visitor, the bacteriologist had told him that what was in fact a new species of bacterium he was working on was the cholera bacillus. The only effect of the new bacterium has been to produce patches of blue on various animals he has tried it on, but now the bacteriologist faces the trouble and expense of preparing a new batch.
Shortly before the publication of “The Stolen Bacillus” anarchists had bombed restaurants, a barracks, and the Chamber of Deputies in France, but the only anarchist-inspired attack in Britain had occurred on 15 February 1894, when the French anarchist Martial Bourdin was killed when the explosives he was carrying detonated prematurely outside the Greenwich Observatory. British anarchists during the 1880s and 1890s were not really a comparable threat to their French contemporaries, as their chosen medium of expression was “printed propaganda”.
The academic and author Deaglán Ó Donghaile has suggested that “The Stolen Bacillus” is best seen as one of the parodies of radicalism that “were common during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, and with this story Wells pandered to the popular construction of Anarchism as morbid irrationality.”
- A bacillus is a rod-shaped bacterium.