Today, we try not to breathe the evil vapors of the
night air. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Here're two words for you:
Malaria literally means "bad air."
Miasma was a word we once used for air that
carries diseases like malaria. A miasma was air,
usually night air, tainted with poison. That's why
a Shakespearean suitor said of his love,
O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,All through the 19th century we still
believed that bad air, actually smelly air, caused
disease. Microscopes had shown us germs swimming in
water, but we didn't connect them with disease.
Methought she purged the air of pestilence.
Then, in 1853, an English doctor, John Snow,
struggled with a cholera epidemic in London. The
stink of death and sickness was all around. People
thought that stink carried the disease. But Snow
studied statistics. He finally pin-pointed a well
whose water was fed by sewage from a public toilet
up the hill.
After that, Lister, Koch, and Pasteur identified
disease-carrying germs. They learned to kill them.
But the concept of miasma didn't go away. In 1870
the English physicist Tyndall proved that particles
in air can carry germs -- the aerosol droplets we
cough up, or dust. The air itself carries nothing
But we still believed in miasma. Tropical diseases
like malaria and yellow fever seemed to be carried
by miasma. You caught them without touching the
sick. Africans had correctly told the English
explorer Richard Burton that mosquitoes carried
yellow fever. He laughed at natives who didn't
understand that bad air simply arrived during
It was 1897 before two doctors, Ronald Ross working
in India, then Walter Reed working in Havana, began
looking at mosquitoes. In 1897 Ross cut mosquitoes
open. He found evidence of the bacterium that
caused malaria in their stomachs. He was so excited
that he sat down and wrote bad poetry about it:
Henceforth I will resound,
But praises unto Thee;
Tho' I was beat and bound,
Thou gavest me victory.
By now typhoid and yellow fever were taking a
terrible toll among our soldiers in Cuba. Walter
Reed went looking for the cause. At first he
suspected the miasma. However, by 1900 his team had
proved that water carried typhoid. Two years later
they showed that mosquitoes, not bad air, were
carrying yellow fever.
So we had, at last, "purged the night air of
pestilence." Now we embraced fresh air as never
before. We began building our houses with outdoor
sleeping porches. Fresh air was still the great
cure-all when I was a child.
And maybe rightly so. For a new miasma of airborne
carcinogens and pollutants is afflicting us. Today,
we might well need fresh air, purged of pestilence,
more than we ever did.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Tyndall, J., Essays on the Floating-Matter of
the Air (Reprinted from the New York Edition
of 1882, R.N. Doetsch, ed.). New York: Johnson
Reprint Corp., 1966. (See also Episode 642 on this work by Tyndall.)
See articles on Ross and Reed in the
Dictionary of Scientific Biography.
(C.C. Gilespie, ed.) Chas. Scribner's Sons,
1970-1980, and entries for miasm and miasma in
The Oxford English Dictionary.
Root-Bernstein, R.S., "Ends & Means," The
Sciences, March/April, 1991, pp. 10-12.
The Shakespeare lines are spoken by Orsino in the
opening scene of Twelfth Night:
O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,The connection between Ross's work on
mosquito-borne malaria and sleeping porches is part
of research in progress by Margaret Culbertson, UH
Art and Architecture Library. Martha Steele, UH
Library, points out that in the late 19th century
Henry James calls the miasma down on one of his
literary characters. His Daisy Miller foolishly dares
to venture out one night in Rome to visit the
Coliseum. She contracts a disease that James vaguely
calls "Roman Fever" from the night vapors and dies of
Methought she purged the air of pestilence!
That instant was I turn'd into a hart;
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E'er since pursue me.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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