The Miasma Theory

Throughout history, many people believed that bad smells were directly linked to instances of illness and death. Cities were often overcrowded places with low sanitation standards, therefore, diseases could spread throughout these city centers fairly quickly. People began correlating the bad odors of the city with disease (Parker 121). By the 18th century, the discovery of microscopic particles led people to believe that the particles in the air, so small that they could not be seen with the human eye, could enter a body and wreak havoc on one’s system (Parker 121). During the Black Plague in Europe, the Plague doctors wore special protective uniforms in order to prevent them from catching the sickness as well. Plague doctors were oftentimes under-educated individuals hired by the city who lacked a strong medical foundation. Their uniforms are highly recognizable to us today, with their bird-like masks. These rather strange masks served an important purpose though for the doctors who believed wholeheartedly in the miasmas theory. Aromatics were stuffed into the long beaks in order to prevent the doctor from smelling the rot and purification associated with the illness.


(An example of a Plague doctor’s protective uniform. They hoped that the masks would reduce their exposure to the miasmas in the air that caused disease. Photo Credit: Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History, 67.)


Even Florence Nightingale, a nurse during the Crimean War who helped reform the nursing field, believed in the power of fresh air. In her instructional manual, Notes on Nursing,  Florence states that hospitals should be constructed in such a way that allows for regular air circulation, rather than a heavy dependence on chemical disinfectants (Kiechle). In general, American hospitals agreed with Florence Nightingale’s modern ideas and fresh air was considered a key factor in a patient’s recovery (Kiechle). It wasn’t until around 1870 when Robert Koch, a microbiologist, related different microorganisms as the cause of various diseases, that people began abandoning the miasma theory altogether (Parker 121). Although disease is not directly caused from smells, as once thought, the efforts to supply patients with cleaner environments and air circulation did indeed contribute to better sanitation methods and promising recoveries.

“First rule of nursing, to keep the air within as pure as the air without”-Florence Nightingale (Parker 121). 

If That Didn’t Make You Grateful For Modern Medicine Then I Don’t Know What Will!

Until Next Time



  • Kiechle, Melanie. “Fighting Disease with Smell “Disinfection” during the Civil War.” National Museum of Civil War Medicine. October 1, 2019.
  • Parker, Steve. Medicine: The Definitive Illustrated History. DK Publishing: New York, 2016.

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