Thursday, January 7, 2010

Miasma in 19th Century England

After the lecture on cholera, I was intrigued to learn more about miasma and how it developed into such a universally held belief during the 19th century. I found that British doctor William Farr was the primary advocate behind the miasma theory. In contrast to Farr's highly praised 'bad smell' presumption, John Snow developed an alternate theory that held that cholera was a germ that spread to multiple people through unhealthy drinking water. In response to Snow's theory, London's chief medical officer, along with many British scientists and physicians, found Snow's theory preposterous and continued to live in fear of inhaling 'smelly smells'. Farr commented on Snow's theory by saying, "We [members of the scientific community] do not feel it established that the water was contaminated in the manner alleged; nor is there before us any sufficient evidence to show whether inhabitants of that district, drinking from that well, suffered in proportion more than other inhabitants of the district who drank from other sources." They additionally claimed that, "But, on the whole of evidence, it seems impossible to doubt that the influences, which determine in mass the geographical distribution of cholera in London, belong less to the water than to the air." However, eight years after Snow's death, virtually all members of the scientific community, including Farr, recognized that Snow's theory about a cholera bacteria being transmitted via contaminated water, was indeed correct. Farr formally acknowledge the great significance of Snow's findings and the faults of his own. Ironically, the same year Farr passed away, Robert Koch discovered Vibrio cholerae, the bacterium responsible for cholera in humans.


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