Malaria and miasma theory history | Engaging Etymology

Malaria and miasma theory history | Engaging Etymology

Hey, cypher here with another episode of Engaging
Etymology. This time we’re going to see where the word malaria, comes from. So malaria is common tropical disease that
causes nasty symptoms like nausea, fever, and diarrhea. If left untreated it may lead
to severe symptoms like seizures followed by a comatose state and death. It still kills
thousands of people around the world every year. The disease has been the cause of many
problems throughout world history, and its treatment and prevention has been a particularly
powerful force in medicine. We know now that it is mostly transmitted by infected mosquitoes,
whom infect people with their bites. But that was not always the case.
You see, there have been many causes theorized throughout history. Everything from imbalance
of the essential humors (an ancient idea of balancing types essential goo in the human
body), to venereal disease. One incorrect theory held the most sway for a long time,
and its overturning was essential to the progress of medical understanding.
The theory of miasma said that there was a kind of air that floating in particular regions
that was noxious, which was called miasma. This miasma was often portrayed as some kind
of ethereal vapor that floated over the tropics and swamp land. So for the longest time, it
miasmatic diseases such as malaria were thought to be prevented by infusing the air with good
smells from fragrant herbs and burning incense. You might have seen those strange crow masks
that doctors would wear during the plague of the black death, back in the middle ages.
These scary looking masks were not designed to be horrifying or disruptive. Their shape
serves a function. The beak would hold that incense and herbs that supposedly defeated
miasma. That may be a laughable theory in hindsight,
but it was fairly reasonable without the knowledge of bacteria, or in malaria’s case protozoa,
and their how they may cause disease. That idea was not capable of defeating the theory
of miasma until 1736, when physician by the name of Evert Valk theorized that the recently
discovered animalcule (aka bacteria) might be the cause of a disease spreading in the
Netherlands. This was really wacky stuff at that point in time.
It took a while before people like Louis Pasteur really showed ideas of biotics were true through
scientific investigation in the late 19th century. Until then the theory of miasma held
as established truth, since the idea of micro-organisms causing epidemic diseases would be fairly
preposterous to anyone without some sort of proof.
Be mindful of calling such widely accepted theories, such as miasma, foolish because
you may very well hold such supposedly foolish theories close at heart without ever knowing
it. Just look at how dark matter and dark energy has completely usurped our understanding
of the material universe. While interesting methods were created to
fight malaria, such as tonic water. It used to contain a lot of a molecule called quinine
that functions as a prophylactic against malarial infection. It was so effective that the World
Health Organization recommended it as a first line of defense against malaria, all the way
until 2006. Quinine was first used in 1631 to prevent malaria, and became so effective
that tonic water became a standard dietary measure for colonists in tropical areas. The
drink was bitter, so people mixed it with gin to make it go down more easily in the
mid-19th century. That’s where we get the gin and tonic cocktail.
Tonic was effective against malaria, but obviously given the date of 1631 being prior to the
discover of the animalcule in the early 18th century, it was quite impossible to think
that this was stopping a protozoan infection. Instead people thought it was the tonic balanced
exposure to the bad air caused by miasma. And that is where we derive the word malaria.
It comes from italian for bad air, or malo (meaning bad) and aria (meaning air). It comes
from a now defunct theory of miasma. So I hoped you liked the episode, and be sure
to subscribe for more. Be sure to check out my previous episodes if you haven’t seen
them already.

5 thoughts on “Malaria and miasma theory history | Engaging Etymology

  1. just imagine going back to the 1700's with the knowledge we have today and attempting to explain it to people. or just convince them without being burned at the steak a heretic or a witch or something.

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