Smell – Miasmas

Miasmas

If it smells bad, it probably is bad for you. That was the prevailing wisdom once and for many years, it influenced the ways we tried to prevent the spread of disease. I’m Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet.

Kiechle: I’m working on smell in the 19th century.

Historian Melanie Kiechle has been investigating the history of smells.

Kiechle: Before people understood about germs, they did have a strong sense of what made them ill, and those were “miasmas”. Miasmas often smelled badly. Miasma was just this bad air. It might come up from the swamp might come up overnight, but whenever it was present, you often would notice the smell. And so when people in the 19 century noticed smells, they knew it was a danger, and they had to get away.

The prevailing wisdom was that anything that rots is dangerous, and that putrefaction was where many of these miasmas came from. Miasmas were vapors. They came and they went. There were certain places where there would be a lot more vapors. So fogs were dangerous and certainly swamps and marshy places. This was actually scientific and medical belief, not just the belief of everyday people. This was as well as we understood what caused illness before the discovery of germs.

Kiechle: Yellow fever was an incredibly deadly disease in the 19th century, and they thought that it was also caused by bad smells. So in Memphis, everyone was dumping their trash into the local Bayou, and all that smell rose up into the city and they thought that that must be the problem.
It wasn’t until a few years later, due to research that was going on in the Caribbean, that they realized that in fact, yellow fever was being spread by mosquitoes.

The work of Louis Pasteur and others discounted the idea of miasmas and turned the focus of science to microorganisms as the cause of many diseases. Pulse of the Planet is made possible in part by Virginia Tech, inventing the future through a hands-on approach to education and research.

Smell - Miasmas

If it smells bad, it probably is bad for you. That was the prevailing wisdom once and for many years, it influenced the ways we tried to prevent the spread of disease.
Air Date:01/07/2016
Scientist:
Transcript:

Miasmas

If it smells bad, it probably is bad for you. That was the prevailing wisdom once and for many years, it influenced the ways we tried to prevent the spread of disease. I'm Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet.

Kiechle: I'm working on smell in the 19th century.

Historian Melanie Kiechle has been investigating the history of smells.

Kiechle: Before people understood about germs, they did have a strong sense of what made them ill, and those were "miasmas". Miasmas often smelled badly. Miasma was just this bad air. It might come up from the swamp might come up overnight, but whenever it was present, you often would notice the smell. And so when people in the 19 century noticed smells, they knew it was a danger, and they had to get away.

The prevailing wisdom was that anything that rots is dangerous, and that putrefaction was where many of these miasmas came from. Miasmas were vapors. They came and they went. There were certain places where there would be a lot more vapors. So fogs were dangerous and certainly swamps and marshy places. This was actually scientific and medical belief, not just the belief of everyday people. This was as well as we understood what caused illness before the discovery of germs.

Kiechle: Yellow fever was an incredibly deadly disease in the 19th century, and they thought that it was also caused by bad smells. So in Memphis, everyone was dumping their trash into the local Bayou, and all that smell rose up into the city and they thought that that must be the problem.
It wasn't until a few years later, due to research that was going on in the Caribbean, that they realized that in fact, yellow fever was being spread by mosquitoes.

The work of Louis Pasteur and others discounted the idea of miasmas and turned the focus of science to microorganisms as the cause of many diseases. Pulse of the Planet is made possible in part by Virginia Tech, inventing the future through a hands-on approach to education and research.