Miasmas to Microbes

(infectious diseases via the transmission of foul, putrid air)

Paris and the Big Stink of 1880

What exactly did it smell like in Paris during the Great Stink of 1880? Here the richness of the historical record and the representational power of language leave something to be desired.

In 1880, Parisians evoked the odors' effects ("sickening, nauseating, suffocating") or qualifying them simply as "foul, disgusting", and "horrible". "Putrid" and "fetid", were two adjectives frequently used during the episode, evoked at least a range of olfactory sensations, but the available evidence went no further.

Nevertheless, one can infer a good deal from the causes identified by contemporary observers as generating the odors. In the case of the Great Stink of 1880, these included defective cesspits, the illegal dumping of cesspits' contents into the city's sewers, and the suburban solid waste treatment plants circling the capital.

It is reasonable to conclude that the air of Paris in the late summer of 1880 somehow smelled intensely and unpleasantly like the one substance that these alleged causes had in common: human excrement.

—Excerpts from The Great Stink of Paris and the Nineteenth-Century Struggle Against Filth and Germs
by David S. Barnes; Johns Hopkins University Press; Baltimore, MD; 2006; pages 15-16.

Miasma and its perceived connection with diseases

The miasma theory of disease originated in the Middle Ages and persisted for centuries. During the Great Plague of 1665, doctors wore masks filled with sweet-smelling flowers to keep out the poisonous miasmas. Because of the miasmas, they sanitized some buildings, required that "night soil" be removed from public proximity and had swamps drained to get rid of the bad smells.

  • The miasmic approach only worked if something smelled bad.
  • In the winter, sanitation was forgotten.
  • The theory of miasmas was still popular in the 1800s and led to the "Bad Air theory" which lasted until the 1860s and 1870s.
  • Miasmic reasoning prevented many doctors from adopting new practices like washing their hands between the treatment of patients.
  • Lethal agents traveled by air, they thought, and were not lodged beneath doctors' fingernails or on their hands, etc.
  • Although the miasma theory because if its emphasis on odor proved incorrect, it represented some recognition of the relation between filth and disease.
  • It encouraged cleanliness and paved the way for public health reform.
  • The pioneer nurse, Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), firmly believed in miasmas and became celebrated for her work in making hospitals clean, fresh, and airy.
  • The miasma theory also helped to interest scientists in decaying matter and led eventually to the identification of microbes as agents of infectious disease instead of stench alone.

From Miasmas to Microbes

The popular belief that polluted air is the major cause of diseases is recorded as far back as 2,500 years ago when Hippocrates wrote about "Airs, Waters, Places".

A vigorous and influential miasmatist in the 19th century was Florence Nightingale. She wrote that "the very first canon of nursing . . . the first essential to the patient, without which all the rest you can do for him is as nothing . . . is this: TO KEEP THE AIR HE BREATHES AS PURE AS THE EXTERNAL AIR." Foul air was the most important cause of infection: "of the fatal effects of the effluvia from excreta it would seem unnecessary to speak were they not so constantly neglected."

  • In 1895, the bacteriological revolution taught that there was a clear association of specific diseases with specific cultivatable microbes.
  • The clash of the old-fashioned miasmatic theories and the developing new science did not lead to the defeat of the former and victory for the latter.
  • Filth and germs came to be conjoined.
  • There was a development of sanitary-bacteriological synthesis which brought the commonsense cultural appeal and broad applicability of the old knowledge (that foul-smelling substances are bad for one's health) into harmony with the specific and scientific mastery inherent in the new knowledge of microbes.
  • There has been a sanitary-bacteriological synthesis which is the lasting legacy of the sanitarians of the early nineteenth century and the bacteriologists of the late nineteenth century.
  • The many preachers of the gospel of germs who have done missionary work at home and abroad every since is very much alive and well in our own time.
  • Cleanliness has never been as close to godliness (and good health) as it is today, thanks as much to our disgust of filth as to science.

Although such statements of modern "cleanliness" is accepted by many people, they are too often not valid! Too many people still neglect the importance of cleanliness by failing to wash their hands; especially in hospitals where one would think that the highest degree of sanitation is observed.

More and more evidence of a lack of respect for cleanliness has been traced to the fact that doctors and nurses do not take the dangers of passing germs from one patient to another into consideration.

The wearing of plastic/rubber gloves is no guarantee of sanitation when the same gloves are worn by medical personnel as they go from patient to patient.

This lack of cleanliness is also observed by dentists and dental aids who may be protecting themselves, but don't take into consideration that touching unsanitized objects (door handles, x-ray equipment, etc.) or other patients with the same gloves without using any cleansing agents to sanitize the gloves are contaminating others as they pass microbes from one person to another.

—Excerpts compiled from an article titled,
"From Miasmas to Microbes" by Hugh Penninton as seen in the magazine
Science, September 22, 2006; page 1740.

Links to related miasmatic words Related miasmatic words.