Miasma Theory and the Evil Air


The plague doctor used to wear a waxed coat, a sort of protective goggles and gloves, the beak of their masks contained aromatic substances. DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / De Agostini/Getty Images

Prior to the germ theory of disease, miasma theory ruled the day -- the notion that bad air, full of destructive particles, wafted out from the foul places of the earth to corrupt everything it touched. In this episode of Stuff to Blow Your Mind, Robert and Joe explore the origins or the theory, its effects on society and how it eventually gave way to an accurate understanding of contagion.

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Coloured satirical engraving by William Heath (1795-1840), also know by his pseudonym Paul Pry, showing a lady discovering the quality of the Thames water. The top title reads, "Microcosm dedicated to the London Water Companies. Brought forth all monstrous, all prodigious things, hydras and organs, and chimeras dire." The bottom title reads, "Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water being a correct representation of that precious stuff doled out to us!" It is probably a reference to the water distributed by the Chelsea Water works. By the 1820s, public concern was growing at the increasingly polluted water supply taken from the Thames in London. In 1831 and 1832 the city experienced its first outbreaks of cholera.
Coloured satirical engraving by William Heath (1795-1840), also know by his pseudonym Paul Pry, showing a lady discovering the quality of the Thames water. The top title reads, "Microcosm dedicated to the London Water Companies. Brought forth all monstrous, all prodigious things, hydras and organs, and chimeras dire." The bottom title reads, "Monster Soup commonly called Thames Water being a correct representation of that precious stuff doled out to us!" It is probably a reference to the water distributed by the Chelsea Water works. By the 1820s, public concern was growing at the increasingly polluted water supply taken from the Thames in London. In 1831 and 1832 the city experienced its first outbreaks of cholera.
Photo by SSPL/Getty Images

Topics in this Podcast: disease, health, history