21st July 1855. Miasma or Germ Theory?

Many people in the old days had a superstitious belief in avoiding the night air as they considered it noxious, stemming from a belief in injurious miasma. No open windows for them!

Punch Magazine Today in 1855 showed the scientist, Michael Faraday giving his visiting card to ‘Father Thames’. The problem was that the white card was indecipherable owing to the scientist having dropped it into the River at intervals and noticed all he could see was ‘brown sludge’.

 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Caricature: Faraday giving his card to Father Thames. 'And we hope the Dirty Fellow will consult the learned Professor.' 1855 Punch Published: 1855 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome ImagesCaricature: Faraday giving his card to Father Thames. ‘And we hope the Dirty Fellow will consult the learned Professor.’
1855 Punch 


Though early 19thc Britain lacked any kind of a sewerage system, it was London with its rapidly growing population that the problem was particularly acute. The result was periodic outbreaks of cholera.

Punch Cartoon

A Court for King Cholera, Punch Cartoon 1852. Vol 23.Westminster City Archives.

Before the Germ Theory which posited germs came from micro-organisms, in the late century, the assumption was that cholera and typhus were spread by ‘miasma’ or tainted air and contagion.

Much work was done in the century by Edwin Chadwick and William Farr who compiled a demography of public health in an attempt to arrive at a consensus about causation of disease.(1)


Glasgow street

Glasgow street 1868.

London had become a densely populated and disease ridden city, not helped by the sewage contaminated Thames. Farr (2) subscribed to the miasmic air theory ascribing cholera to miasma (Ancient Greek for pollution), in the air.

From the Middle Ages poisonous vapours were supposed to hold particles of decay, indeed malaria means ‘bad air’.

However by removing the bad smells, by improved sanitation, it did inadvertently remove much bacteria, cause of many diseases, but not cholera.

London suffered severe outbreaks of cholera between 1830-1860, as did many parts of the country.

Cholera (water-borne bacterium vibrio cholerae) was a big killer with a major outbreak in London in 1849, resulting in 15,000 deaths.

Another outbreak in 1853, saw Farr gathering evidence that two water companies, The Southwark and Vauxhall and the Lambeth, which drew water from the Thames were related to cholera amongst the consumers.

However, Farr who took part in the General Board of Health, 1854 Committee for Scientific Enquiry, still clung to a belief that cholera resulted from many causes.


One of Farr’s theories was that there was an inverse correlation of mortality depending on elevation. Those living at sea-level, having a higher incidence, resulting from swampy and stagnant water.

However, by the 1866 London cholera outbreak, Farr had come round to accepting John Snow’s Theory on Germs, his pathogen theory, which was held despite great opposition.

Farr then produced a monograph showing the high mortality for people who drew water specifically from the Old Ford Reservoir in East London, which proved to be conclusive in the arguments.

(1) Medical statistics came into its own through the work of British epidemiologist Farr, who was responsible for collecting data in England and Wales and creating a system for recording death and mortality of different occupations.

(2) 30.11.1807-14.4.1883.

Ref: wikipedia.org/miasma and germ theory.

Ref: choleraandthethames.co.uk/Pic images.

Ref: sciencemuseum.org.uk/Image of Street




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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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