Miasma and the Development of Theory-Stuart Bagley

Disease, smell, and death were among the most common concerns of the middling and upper classes during the 1800s. Several waves of cholera, and high levels of typhoid, typhus, and general illness were growing issues within not only the slum, but had begun to spread to the rest of London. When social reformers considered how to tackle these issues, they turned to the most likely theory of the time: the miasmic theory. With a history going back to the middle ages, the theory explained disease as decay lingering in the air, causing bad smells and disease. With the recent growth of industrial London, high death rates and the smells that permeated the slums, it was supposedly apparent that smell was to blame.[1] Such was the concern about smell that Edwin Chadwick – a prominent scientist and leading reformer – was concerned not only by vile smell, but claimed that “all smell is disease.”[2] Showing this in a more popular form is a work from Punch  published in 1846 called “Poison Gas-Works.”

Whilst this piece was published prior to the crisis caused by the East London Water Company in 1858, it goes some way to summing up and clarifying the way that smell had taken hold of the public imagination when discussing disease. Depictions of chemicals are a particularly evident:

Let him put into these holes as many tons as they will hold of oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus, and sulphur. [3]

Suddenly, any living creature could be the cause and slums were full of living creatures. Religion and the church are also brought into the mix, with claims that “ministers obtain a living by them”, striking at the heart of middle class identity, to which religion and piety was central. The case put forward by Punch is also interesting in its lack of discussion of smells from production, coal and factories in general. This in defined miasma theory and therefore understanding of the smell of the slum. Peter Thorsheim suggests that black smoke from production or asbestos were not considered pollutants, or as part of smell that caused illness. Instead this was limited to “natural sources” such as plant and animal matter, originating in cesspools, sewers and graveyards. In fact, miasma theory even venerated many of these substances as helping to purify the air.[4]

Led by the fear which the miasmic theory caused in people, houses were lime-washed, fumigated, and people attempted to burn sweeter smelling substances in the areas where “miasma” permeated. The issue became an increasing concern of those investigating the conditions of  the slums, and how to improve them. This problem persisted long after the true cause of the disease was found to be germs and bacteria within water. As Corbin has commented, “What was intolerable was the odour of putrefaction or fermentation, not of combustion.” People were wedded to the idea that smelling nice was the key preventing disease, and that by ensuring that houses smelt better, an area could be purified.[5] This can be linked to literature of the time, both fiction and nonfiction. Death was central to many of the works of Charles Dickens, for instance, and in fact many of his scenes show graveyards in derelict condition, a notion that was becoming apparent to the members of the Central Board of Health. In 1850 an interim measure was passed, urging them to close the worst burial grounds, and creature a central one for the city.[6]

Whilst the miasmic theory was the prevailing one, there were other theories being proposed prior to the discovery of germs. The one that hindsight shows to be the most credible is the water-borne theory of Jon Snow. Having treated the disease in the 1840s, Snow investigated the Broad Street outbreak of 1854. He believed that the cause was drinking from the local pump, and composed a map showing deaths in proximity to the pump.

Some had questioned why the brewery had no deaths, but upon investigation, Snow found that the workers could drink all the beer they wanted as the process of creating the beer killed off the germs that caused cholera. Further to this, a local workhouse had its own pump, limiting the deaths.[7] Despite this, the paranoia around miasma, and the influence of men including Chadwick had taken hold.

Figure 1. Jon Snow’s Broad Street
Pump Map

The persistence of miasma theory could be explained through the reform that took place, which had indavertently helped prevent the actual cause. The building of new sewers by Joseph Bazalgette improved drainage, meaning less waste and particularly faecal matter on the streets.[8] This in turn reduced both smell and disease in the area. This however, had only occurred because of the incident known as “The Great Stink.”  With the reduction of cesspools and rivers of sewage, combined with a decrease in outbreaks of diseases, miasma continued to be the dominant theory and the improvements seemed to confirm what Chadwick, and even Punch had claimed.

What we can see then, is that smell within the slum extended beyond its everyday social impact, influencing the medical world and government too. Miasma theory explained the problems of disease in a way that was applicable to the slums.


Stuart Bagley



[1]  Miasma Theory, http://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/broughttolife/techniques/miasmatheory [Accessed: 15/11/16]

[2] Edwin Chadwick, Metropolitan Sewage Committee proceedings. Parliamentary Papers 1846;10, p. 651.

[3] Punch, Jan-June 1846. available online:  http://www.victorianlondon.org/index-2012.htm date 08/10/16

[4] Thorsheim, P., Inventing Pollution: Coal, Smoke and culture in Britain since 1800, (Ohio University Press 2006) pp. 2-3.

[5] Thorsheim, Inventing Pollution, p. 16

[6] Hotz, M., Literary Remains: Representations of Death and Burial in Victorian England (State University of New York Press, 2009), p. 72-73.

[7] https://www1.udel.edu/johnmack/frec682/cholera/ – Mapping the 1854 London Cholera Outbreak

[8] Sir Joseph Bazalgette and London’s Sewers, http://www.history.co.uk/study-topics/history-of-london/sir-joseph-bazalgette-and-londons-sewers [Accessed: 15/11/16]