Miasma, Suffering and Death in Victorian London

This was a huge idea among the medical profession in the early to mid Victorian era. The Miasma, basically this belief held that people could with most diseases which was caused by inhaling air that was infected through exposure to corrupting matter.

So that would include rotting vegetation, the exhalations of other people already infected, sewage and of course the rotting corpse.

Edwin Chadwick’s Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain was published in 1842 it argued for:

‘the improvement of house drainage to remove noxious smells from dwellings’. 

And he was not the only one. Sir Francis Head a former colonial governor who had agreed with his report in the rather influential the Quarterly Review. Chadwick’s criticism of poor drainage and ventilation was applauded by Head and the miasmatic theory of disease propagation was starting to take hold.

In fact Chadwick felt so strongly he address a parlimetary committee in 1846 stating that:

“All smell is, if it be intense, immediate acute disease; and eventually we may say that, by depressing the system and rendering it susceptible to the action of other causes, all smell is disease.”

Chadwick actually put forward that it was more important to remove smells from dwellings than to purify drinking water! But alas he was not the only fan of the miasmatic theory, in 1844 the Dr Neil Arnott told the Royal Commission for Enquiring into the State of Large Towns and Populous Districts that:

“The immediate and chief cause of many of the diseases which impair the bodily and mental health of the people, and bring a considerable proportion prematurely to the grave is the poison of atmospheric impurity arising from the accumulation in and around their dwellings of the decomposing remnants of the substances used for food and from the impurities given out from their own bodies.”

Florence Nightingale added to it claiming that people could get:

‘scarlet fever, measles, and smallpox to the practice of building houses with drains beneath them from which odours could escape and infect the inhabitants’

Mind you it is worth recalling that the Great Stink of 1858 and even before that various outbreaks of Cholera.

Sur, -May we beg and beeseech your protection your proteckshion and power. We are Sur, as it may be, livin in a Wilderniss, so far as the rest of London knows anything of us, or as the rich and great people care about. We live in muck and filthe. We aint got no privies, no dust bins, no drains, no water splies, and no drain or suer in the hole place. The Suer Company in Greek Street, Soho Square, all great rich and powerful men, take no notice watsotnedever of our complaints. The Stenche of a Gully-hole is disgustin. We all of us suffur, and numbers are ill, and if the Colera comes Lord help us… A Letter to The Times 1849

More from the times:

“The intense heat had driven our legislators from those portions of their buildings which overlook the river. A few members, bent upon investigating the matter to its very depth, ventured into the library but they were instantaneously driven to retreat, each man with a handkerchief to his nose.” The Times June 1859

The Great Stink or mass murderer as the pungent odor was deemed has at last

prompted parliament to put into practice Joseph Bazalgette’s plans for a comprehensive sewerage system especially since Parliament was right next to the river and a surgeon pronounced:

“it would be dangerous to the lives of the jurymen, counsel and witnesses to remain. It would produce malaria and perhaps typhus fever.”

But it was in the shape of Willam Farr, whose study of the Whitechapel cholera epidemic of 1866 finally persuaded him that water, not air, was the cause but the miasma theory still held water for many into the early part of the twentieth century.

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