Germ theory of disease

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Scanning electron microscope image of Vibrio cholerae. This is the bacterium that causes cholera. Cholera bacteria SEM.jpg
Scanning electron microscope image of Vibrio cholerae . This is the bacterium that causes cholera.

The germ theory of disease is the currently accepted scientific theory for many diseases. It states that microorganisms known as pathogens or "germs" can lead to disease. These small organisms, too small to see without magnification, invade humans, other animals, and other living hosts. Their growth and reproduction within their hosts can cause disease. "Germ" may refer to not just a bacterium but to any type of microorganism or even non-living pathogen that can cause disease, such as protists, fungi, viruses, prions, or viroids. [1] Diseases caused by pathogens are called infectious diseases. Even when a pathogen is the principal cause of a disease, environmental and hereditary factors often influence the severity of the disease, and whether a potential host individual becomes infected when exposed to the pathogen.

A scientific theory is an explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can be repeatedly tested and verified in accordance with the scientific method, using accepted protocols of observation, measurement, and evaluation of results. Where possible, theories are tested under controlled conditions in an experiment. In circumstances not amenable to experimental testing, theories are evaluated through principles of abductive reasoning. Established scientific theories have withstood rigorous scrutiny and embody scientific knowledge.

Disease abnormal condition negatively affecting organisms

A disease is a particular abnormal condition that negatively affects the structure or function of part or all of an organism, and that is not due to any external injury. Diseases are often construed as medical conditions that are associated with specific symptoms and signs. A disease may be caused by external factors such as pathogens or by internal dysfunctions. For example, internal dysfunctions of the immune system can produce a variety of different diseases, including various forms of immunodeficiency, hypersensitivity, allergies and autoimmune disorders.

Microorganism microscopic living organism

A microorganism, or microbe, is a microscopic organism, which may exist in its single-celled form or in a colony of cells.


The germ theory was proposed by Girolamo Fracastoro in 1546, and expanded upon by Marcus von Plenciz in 1762. Such views were held in disdain, however, and Galen's miasma theory remained dominant among scientists and doctors. The nature of this doctrine prevented them from understanding how diseases actually progressed, with predictable consequences. By the early nineteenth century, smallpox vaccination was commonplace in Europe, though doctors were unaware of how it worked or how to extend the principle to other diseases. Similar treatments had been prevalent in India from just before AD 1000. [2] [N 1] A transitional period began in the late 1850s with the work of Louis Pasteur. This work was later extended by Robert Koch in the 1880s. Viruses were discovered in the 1890s. By the end of the 1880s, the miasma theory was struggling to compete with the germ theory of disease. Eventually, a "golden era" of bacteriology ensued, during which the theory quickly led to the identification of the actual organisms that cause many diseases. [3] [4]

Girolamo Fracastoro Italian physician

Girolamo Fracastoro was an Italian physician, poet, and scholar in mathematics, geography and astronomy. Fracastoro subscribed to the philosophy of atomism, and rejected appeals to hidden causes in scientific investigation.

Marcus von Plenciz (1705-1786) was a Vienna physician credited with advancing the germ theory of disease. He hypothesized that each disease was caused by a different organism dwelling within the human body, but was unable to offer proof.

Galen Roman physician, surgeon and philosopher

Aelius Galenus or Claudius Galenus, often Anglicized as Galen and better known as Galen of Pergamon, was a Greek physician, surgeon and philosopher in the Roman Empire. Arguably the most accomplished of all medical researchers of antiquity, Galen influenced the development of various scientific disciplines, including anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, and neurology, as well as philosophy and logic.

Miasma theory

A representation by Robert Seymour of the cholera epidemic depicts the spread of the disease in the form of poisonous air. Cholera art.jpg
A representation by Robert Seymour of the cholera epidemic depicts the spread of the disease in the form of poisonous air.

The miasma theory was the predominant theory of disease transmission before the germ theory took hold towards the end of the 19th century, and it is no longer accepted as a scientific theory of disease. It held that diseases such as cholera, chlamydia infection, or the Black Death were caused by a miasma (μίασμα, Ancient Greek: "pollution"), a noxious form of "bad air" emanating from rotting organic matter. [5] Miasma was considered to be a poisonous vapor or mist filled with particles from decomposed matter (miasmata) that was identifiable by its foul smell. The theory posited that diseases were the product of environmental factors such as contaminated water, foul air, and poor hygienic conditions. Such infections, according to the theory, were not passed between individuals but would affect those within a locale that gave rise to such vapors.[ citation needed ]

Cholera Bacterial infection of the small intestine

Cholera is an infection of the small intestine by some strains of the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. Symptoms may range from none, to mild, to severe. The classic symptom is large amounts of watery diarrhea that lasts a few days. Vomiting and muscle cramps may also occur. Diarrhea can be so severe that it leads within hours to severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. This may result in sunken eyes, cold skin, decreased skin elasticity, and wrinkling of the hands and feet. Dehydration can cause the skin to turn bluish. Symptoms start two hours to five days after exposure.

Chlamydia infection sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis.

Chlamydia infection, often simply known as chlamydia, is a sexually transmitted infection caused by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis. Most people who are infected have no symptoms. When symptoms do develop this can take a few weeks following infection to occur. Symptoms in women may include vaginal discharge or burning with urination. Symptoms in men may include discharge from the penis, burning with urination, or pain and swelling of one or both testicles. The infection can spread to the upper genital tract in women causing pelvic inflammatory disease which may result in future infertility or ectopic pregnancy. Repeated infections of the eyes that go without treatment can result in trachoma, a common cause of blindness in the developing world.

Black Death pandemic in Eurasia in the 1300s

The Black Death, also known as the Great Plague, the Black Plague, or the Plague, was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 75 to 200 million people in Eurasia and peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351. The bacterium Yersinia pestis, which results in several forms of plague, is believed to have been the cause. The Black Death was the first major European outbreak of plague, and the second plague pandemic. The plague created a series of religious, social and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history.


Pre-19th century

In Antiquity, the Greek historian Thucydides (c. 460 – c. 400 BC) was the first person to state, in his account of the plague of Athens, that diseases could spread from an infected person to others. [6] [7] One theory of the spread of contagious diseases that were not spread by direct contact was that they were spread by "seeds" (Latin: semina) that were present in the air. In his poem, De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things, c. 56 BC), the Roman poet Lucretius (c. 99 BC – c. 55 BC) stated that the world contained various "seeds", some of which could sicken a person if they were inhaled or if they contaminated his food. [8] [9] The Roman statesman Marcus Terentius Varro (116–27 BC) wrote, in his Rerum rusticarum libri III (Three Books on Agriculture, 36 BC): "Precautions must also be taken in the neighborhood of swamps […] because there are bred certain minute creatures which cannot be seen by the eyes, which float in the air and enter the body through the mouth and nose and there cause serious diseases." [10] The Greek physician Galen (AD 129 – c. 200/c. 216) speculated in his On Initial Causes (c. AD 175) that some patients might have "seeds of fever". [11] In his On the Different Types of Fever (c. AD 175), Galen speculated that plagues were spread by "certain seeds of plague", which were present in the air. [12] And in his Epidemics (c. AD 176–178), Galen explained that patients might relapse during recovery from a fever because some "seed of the disease" lurked in their bodies, which would cause a recurrence of the disease if the patients didn't follow a physician's therapeutic regimen. [13]

Age of the Earth Scientific dating of the age of the Earth

The age of the Earth is 4.54 ± 0.05 billion years (4.54 × 109 years ± 1%). This age may represent the age of the Earth's accretion, of core formation, or of the material from which the Earth formed. This dating is based on evidence from radiometric age-dating of meteorite material and is consistent with the radiometric ages of the oldest-known terrestrial and lunar samples.

Thucydides Greek historian and Athenian general

Thucydides was an Athenian historian and general. His History of the Peloponnesian War recounts the fifth-century BC war between Sparta and Athens until the year 411 BC. Thucydides has been dubbed the father of "scientific history" by those who accept his claims to have applied strict standards of impartiality and evidence-gathering and analysis of cause and effect, without reference to intervention by the deities, as outlined in his introduction to his work.

Plague of Athens epidemic in Athens, Greece of the 5th century B.C.

The Plague of Athens was an epidemic that devastated the city-state of Athens in ancient Greece during the second year of the Peloponnesian War when an Athenian victory still seemed within reach. It is believed to have entered Athens through Piraeus, the city's port and sole source of food and supplies. Much of the eastern Mediterranean also saw outbreak of the disease, albeit with less impact. The plague returned twice more, in 429 BC and in the winter of 427/426 BC. Some 30 pathogens have been suggested as causing the plague.

During the Middle Ages, Isidore of Seville (c. 560–636) mentioned "plague-bearing seeds" (pestifera semina) in his On the Nature of Things (c. AD 613). [14] Later in 1345, Tommaso del Garbo (c. 1305–1370) of Bologna, Italy mentioned Galen's "seeds of plague" in his work Commentaria non parum utilia in libros Galeni (Helpful commentaries on the books of Galen). [15]

Isidore of Seville bishop, confessor and doctor of the Catholic Church

Saint Isidore of Seville, a scholar and, for over three decades, Archbishop of Seville, is widely regarded in the Catholic Church as the last of the Church Fathers, as the 19th-century historian Montalembert put it in an oft-quoted phrase, "The last scholar of the ancient world."

Tommaso del Garbo or Thomas de Garbo was a professor of medicine in Perugia and Bologna. He was the son of the physician Dino del Garbo and a friend of the poet Petrarch.

The Italian scholar and physician Girolamo Fracastoro proposed in 1546 in his book De Contagione et Contagiosis Morbis that epidemic diseases are caused by transferable seed-like entities (seminaria morbi) that transmit infection by direct or indirect contact, or even without contact over long distances. The diseases were categorised based on how they were transmitted, and how long they could lie dormant.

Italian physician Francesco Redi provided early evidence against spontaneous generation. He devised an experiment in 1668 in which he used three jars. He placed a meatloaf and egg in each of the three jars. He had one of the jars open, another one tightly sealed, and the last one covered with gauze. After a few days, he observed that the meatloaf in the open jar was covered by maggots, and the jar covered with gauze had maggots on the surface of the gauze. However, the tightly sealed jar had no maggots inside or outside it. He also noticed that the maggots were found only on surfaces that were accessible by flies. From this he concluded that spontaneous generation is not a plausible theory.

Francesco Redi Italian entomologist and poet

Francesco "Baltazar" Redi was an Italian physician, naturalist, biologist and poet. He is referred to as the "founder of experimental biology", and as the "father of modern parasitology". He was the first person to challenge the theory of spontaneous generation by demonstrating that maggots come from eggs of flies.

Spontaneous generation disproven theory of life arising from nonliving matter

Spontaneous generation refers to an obsolete body of thought on the ordinary formation of living organisms without descent from similar organisms. The theory of spontaneous generation held that living creatures could arise from nonliving matter and that such processes were commonplace and regular. For instance, it was hypothesized that certain forms such as fleas could arise from inanimate matter such as dust, or that maggots could arise from dead flesh. A variant idea was that of equivocal generation, in which species such as tapeworms arose from unrelated living organisms, now understood to be their hosts. The idea of univocal generation, by contrast, refers to effectively exclusive reproduction from genetically related parent(s), generally of the same species.

Meatloaf dish of ground meat formed into a loaf shape

Meatloaf is a dish of ground meat that has been mixed with other ingredients and formed into the shape of a loaf, then baked or smoked. The final shape is either hand-formed on a flat pan or created by cooking it in a loaf pan. It is usually made with ground beef, although ground lamb, pork, veal, venison, poultry and seafood are also used.

Microorganisms are said to have been first directly observed in the 1670s by Anton van Leeuwenhoek, an early pioneer in microbiology. Yet Athanasius Kircher may have done so prior. When Rome was struck by the bubonic plague in 1656, Kircher spent days on end caring for the sick. Searching for a cure, Kircher observed microorganisms under the microscope and invented the germ theory of disease, which he outlined in his Scrutinium pestis physico-medicum (Rome 1658). [16] Building on Leeuwenhoek's work, physician Nicolas Andry argued in 1700 that microorganisms he called "worms" were responsible for smallpox and other diseases. [17]

In 1720, Richard Bradley theorised that the plague and 'all pestilential distempers' were caused by 'poisonous insects', living creatures viewable only with the help of microscopes. [18]

In 1762, the Austrian physician Marcus Antonius von Plenciz (1705–1786) published a book titled Opera medico-physica. It outlined a theory of contagion stating that specific animalcules in the soil and the air were responsible for causing specific diseases. Von Plenciz noted the distinction between diseases which are both epidemic and contagious (like measles and dysentry), and diseases which are contagious but not epidemic (like rabies and leprosy). [19] The book cites Anton van Leeuwenhoek to show how ubiquitous such animalcules are, and was unique for describing the presence of germs in ulcerating wounds. Ultimately, the theory espoused by von Plenciz was not accepted by the scientific community.

Agostino Bassi

The Italian Agostino Bassi was the first person to prove that a disease was caused by a microorganism when he conducted a series of experiments between 1808 and 1813, demonstrating that a "vegetable parasite" caused a disease in silkworms known as calcinacciothis disease was devastating the French silk industry at the time. The "vegetable parasite" is now known to be a fungus pathogenic to insects called Beauveria bassiana (named after Bassi).

Ignaz Semmelweis

Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian obstetrician working at the Vienna General Hospital (Allgemeines Krankenhaus) in 1847, noticed the dramatically high maternal mortality from puerperal fever following births assisted by doctors and medical students. However, those attended by midwives were relatively safe. Investigating further, Semmelweis made the connection between puerperal fever and examinations of delivering women by doctors, and further realized that these physicians had usually come directly from autopsies. Asserting that puerperal fever was a contagious disease and that matter from autopsies were implicated in its development, Semmelweis made doctors wash their hands with chlorinated lime water before examining pregnant women. He then documented a sudden reduction in the mortality rate from 18% to 2.2% over a period of a year. Despite this evidence, he and his theories were rejected by most of the contemporary medical establishment.

Gideon Mantell

Gideon Mantell, the Sussex doctor more famous for discovering dinosaur fossils, spent time with his microscope, and speculated in his Thoughts On Animalcules (1850) that perhaps "many of the most serious maladies which afflict humanity, are produced by peculiar states of invisible animalcular life". [20]

John Snow

Original map by John Snow showing the clusters of cholera cases in the London epidemic of 1854 Snow-cholera-map-1.jpg
Original map by John Snow showing the clusters of cholera cases in the London epidemic of 1854

John Snow was a skeptic of the then-dominant miasma theory. Even though the germ theory of disease pioneered by Girolamo Fracastoro had not yet achieved full development or widespread currency, Snow demonstrated a clear understanding of germ theory in his writings. He first published his theory in an 1849 essay On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, in which he correctly suggested that the fecal-oral route was the mode of communication, and that the disease replicated itself in the lower intestines. He even proposed in his 1855 edition of the work, that the structure of cholera was that of a cell.

Having rejected effluvia and the poisoning of the blood in the first instance, and being led to the conclusion thatthe disease is something that acts directly on the alimentary canal, the excretions of the sick at once suggest themselves as containing some material which being accidentally swallowed might attach itself to the mucous membrane of the small intestines, and there multiply itself by appropriation of surrounding matter, in virtue of molecular changes going on within it, or capable of going on, as soon as it is placed in congenial circumstances.

John Snow (1849)

For the morbid matter of cholera having the property of reproducing its own kind, must necessarily have some sort of structure, most likely that of a cell. It is no objection to this view that the structure of the cholera poison cannot be recognized by the microscope, for the matter of smallpox and of chancre can only be recognized by their effects, and not by their physical properties.

John Snow (1855)

Snow's 1849 recommendation that water be "filtered and boiled before it is used" is one of the first practical applications of germ theory in the area of public health and is the antecedent to the modern boil-water advisory.

In 1855 he published a second edition of his article, documenting his more elaborate investigation of the effect of the water supply in the Soho, London epidemic of 1854.

By talking to local residents, he identified the source of the outbreak as the public water pump on Broad Street (now Broadwick Street). Although Snow's chemical and microscope examination of a water sample from the Broad Street pump did not conclusively prove its danger, his studies of the pattern of the disease were convincing enough to persuade the local council to disable the well pump by removing its handle. This action has been commonly credited as ending the outbreak, but Snow observed that the epidemic may have already been in rapid decline. [21]

Snow later used a dot map to illustrate the cluster of cholera cases around the pump. He also used statistics to illustrate the connection between the quality of the water source and cholera cases. He showed that the Southwark and Vauxhall Waterworks Company was taking water from sewage-polluted sections of the Thames and delivering the water to homes, leading to an increased incidence of cholera. Snow's study was a major event in the history of public health and geography. It is regarded as one of the founding events of the science of epidemiology.

Later, researchers discovered that this public well had been dug only three feet from an old cesspit, which had begun to leak fecal bacteria.[ citation needed ] The diapers of a baby, who had contracted cholera from another source, had been washed into this cesspit. Its opening was originally under a nearby house, which had been rebuilt farther away after a fire. The city had widened the street and the cesspit was lost. It was common at the time to have a cesspit under most homes. Most families tried to have their raw sewage collected and dumped in the Thames to prevent their cesspit from filling faster than the sewage could decompose into the soil.

After the cholera epidemic had subsided, government officials replaced the handle on the Broad Street pump. They had responded only to the urgent threat posed to the population, and afterward they rejected Snow's theory. To accept his proposal would have meant accepting the fecal-oral method transmission of disease, which they dismissed. [22]

Louis Pasteur

Louis Pasteur's pasteurization experiment illustrates the fact that the spoilage of liquid was caused by particles in the air rather than the air itself. These experiments were important pieces of evidence supporting the idea of germ theory of disease. Louis Pasteur Experiment.svg
Louis Pasteur’s pasteurization experiment illustrates the fact that the spoilage of liquid was caused by particles in the air rather than the air itself. These experiments were important pieces of evidence supporting the idea of germ theory of disease.

The more formal experiments on the relationship between germ and disease were conducted by Louis Pasteur between the year 1860 and 1864. He discovered the pathology of the puerperal fever [23] and the pyogenic vibrio in the blood, and suggested using boric acid to kill these microorganisms before and after confinement.

Pasteur further demonstrated between 1860 and 1864 that fermentation and the growth of microorganisms in nutrient broths did not proceed by spontaneous generation. He exposed freshly boiled broth to air in vessels that contained a filter to stop all particles passing through to the growth medium, and even with no filter at all, with air being admitted via a long tortuous tube that would not pass dust particles. Nothing grew in the broths: therefore the living organisms that grew in such broths came from outside, as spores on dust, rather than being generated within the broth.

Pasteur discovered that another serious disease of silkworms, pébrine , was caused by a small microscopic organism now known as Nosema bombycis (1870). Pasteur saved France's silk industry by developing a method to screen silkworms eggs for those that were not infected, a method that is still used today to control this and other silkworm diseases.

Robert Koch

Robert Koch is known for developing four basic criteria (known as Koch's postulates) for demonstrating, in a scientifically sound manner, that a disease is caused by a particular organism. These postulates grew out of his seminal work with anthrax using purified cultures of the pathogen that had been isolated from diseased animals.

Koch's postulates were developed in the 19th century as general guidelines to identify pathogens that could be isolated with the techniques of the day. [24] Even in Koch's time, it was recognized that some infectious agents were clearly responsible for disease even though they did not fulfill all of the postulates. [25] [26] Attempts to rigidly apply Koch's postulates to the diagnosis of viral diseases in the late 19th century, at a time when viruses could not be seen or isolated in culture, may have impeded the early development of the field of virology. [27] [28] Currently, a number of infectious agents are accepted as the cause of disease despite their not fulfilling all of Koch's postulates. [29] Therefore, while Koch's postulates retain historical importance and continue to inform the approach to microbiologic diagnosis, fulfillment of all four postulates is not required to demonstrate causality.

Koch's postulates have also influenced scientists who examine microbial pathogenesis from a molecular point of view. In the 1980s, a molecular version of Koch's postulates was developed to guide the identification of microbial genes encoding virulence factors. [30]

Koch's postulates:

  1. The microorganism must be found in abundance in all organisms suffering from the disease, but should not be found in healthy organisms.
  2. The microorganism must be isolated from a diseased organism and grown in pure culture.
  3. The cultured microorganism should cause disease when introduced into a healthy organism.
  4. The microorganism must be reisolated from the inoculated, diseased experimental host and identified as being identical to the original specific causative agent.

However, Koch abandoned the universalist requirement of the first postulate altogether when he discovered asymptomatic carriers of cholera [26] and, later, of typhoid fever. Asymptomatic or subclinical infection carriers are now known to be a common feature of many infectious diseases, especially viruses such as polio, herpes simplex, HIV, and hepatitis C. As a specific example, all doctors and virologists agree that poliovirus causes paralysis in just a few infected subjects, and the success of the polio vaccine in preventing disease supports the conviction that the poliovirus is the causative agent.

The third postulate specifies "should", not "must", because as Koch himself proved in regard to both tuberculosis and cholera, [25] not all organisms exposed to an infectious agent will acquire the infection. Noninfection may be due to such factors as general health and proper immune functioning; acquired immunity from previous exposure or vaccination; or genetic immunity, as with the resistance to malaria conferred by possessing at least one sickle cell allele.

The second postulate may also be suspended for certain microorganisms or entities that cannot (at the present time) be grown in pure culture, such as prions responsible for Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. [31] In summary, a body of evidence that satisfies Koch's postulates is sufficient but not necessary to establish causation.


In the 1870s, Joseph Lister was instrumental in developing practical applications of the germ theory of disease with respect to sanitation in medical settings and aseptic surgical techniques—partly through the use of carbolic acid (phenol) as an antiseptic.

See also


  1. In a 1767 report to the College of Physicians in London, John Zephaniah Holwell mentions the practice of Smallpox vaccinations by Ayurvedic doctors and their explanations of the cause of the disease.

Related Research Articles

Robert Koch German physician and bacteriologist

Heinrich Hermann Robert Koch was a German physician and microbiologist. As the founder of modern bacteriology, he identified the specific causative agents of tuberculosis, cholera, and anthrax and gave experimental support for the concept of infectious disease, which included experiments on humans and animals. Koch created and improved laboratory technologies and techniques in the field of microbiology, and made key discoveries in public health. His research led to the creation of Koch's postulates, a series of four generalized principles linking specific microorganisms to specific diseases that remain today the "gold standard" in medical microbiology. For his research on tuberculosis, Koch received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1905. The Robert Koch Institute is named in his honor.

Infection invasion of a host by disease-causing organisms

Infection is the invasion of an organism's body tissues by disease-causing agents, their multiplication, and the reaction of host tissues to the infectious agents and the toxins they produce. Infectious disease, also known as transmissible disease or communicable disease, is illness resulting from an infection.

Bacteriology study of bacteria

Bacteriology is the branch and specialty of biology that studies the morphology, ecology, genetics and biochemistry of bacteria as well as many other aspects related to them. This subdivision of microbiology involves the identification, classification, and characterization of bacterial species. Because of the similarity of thinking and working with microorganisms other than bacteria, such as protozoa, fungi, and viruses, there has been a tendency for the field of bacteriology to extend as microbiology. The terms were formerly often used interchangeably. However, bacteriology can be classified as a distinct science.

Epidemic rapid spread of infectious disease to a large number of people in a given population within a short period of time

An epidemic is the rapid spread of infectious disease to a large number of people in a given population within a short period of time, usually two weeks or less. For example, in meningococcal infections, an attack rate in excess of 15 cases per 100,000 people for two consecutive weeks is considered an epidemic.

Kochs postulates four criteria showing a causal relationship between a causative microbe and a disease

Koch's postulates are four criteria designed to establish a causative relationship between a microbe and a disease. The postulates were formulated by Robert Koch and Friedrich Loeffler in 1884, based on earlier concepts described by Jakob Henle, and refined and published by Koch in 1890. Koch applied the postulates to describe the etiology of cholera and tuberculosis, but they have been controversially generalized to other diseases. These postulates were generated prior to understanding of modern concepts in microbial pathogenesis that cannot be examined using Koch's postulates, including viruses or asymptomatic carriers. They have largely been supplanted by other criteria such as the Bradford Hill criteria for infectious disease causality in modern public health.

Miasma theory Obsolete medical theory about the transmission of diesease through bad air

The miasma theory is an obsolete medical theory that held that diseases—such as cholera, chlamydia, or the Black Death—were caused by a miasma, a noxious form of "bad air", also known as night air. The theory held that the origin of epidemics was due to a miasma, emanating from rotting organic matter. Though miasma theory is typically associated with the spread of disease, some academics in the early nineteenth century suggested that the theory extended to other conditions as well, e.g. one could become obese by inhaling the odor of food.

In biology, immunity is the balanced state of multicellular organisms having adequate biological defenses to fight infection, disease, or other unwanted biological invasion, while having adequate tolerance to avoid allergy, and autoimmune diseases.

In medicine, public health, and biology, transmission is the passing of a pathogen causing communicable disease from an infected host individual or group to a particular individual or group, regardless of whether the other individual was previously infected.

Pasteur Institute organization

The Pasteur Institute is a French non-profit private foundation dedicated to the study of biology, micro-organisms, diseases, and vaccines. It is named after Louis Pasteur, who made some of the greatest breakthroughs in modern medicine at the time, including pasteurization and vaccines for anthrax and rabies. The institute was founded on June 4, 1887, and inaugurated on November 14, 1888.

John Snow English epidemiologist and physician

John Snow was an English physician and a leader in the adoption of anaesthesia and medical hygiene. He is considered one of the fathers of modern epidemiology, in part because of his work in tracing the source of a cholera outbreak in Soho, London, in 1854. His findings inspired fundamental changes in the water and waste systems of London, which led to similar changes in other cities, and a significant improvement in general public health around the world.

Paul W. Ewald is an evolutionary biologist, specializing in the evolution of infectious disease. He received his BSc in 1975 from the University of California, Irvine, in Biological Sciences and his PhD in 1980 from the University of Washington, in Zoology, with specialization in Ecology and Evolution. He is currently director of the program in Evolutionary Medicine at the Biology Department of the University of Louisville.

Medical microbiology medical specialty

Medical microbiology , the large subset of microbiology that is applied to medicine, is a branch of medical science concerned with the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of infectious diseases. In addition, this field of science studies various clinical applications of microbes for the improvement of health. There are four kinds of microorganisms that cause infectious disease: bacteria, fungi, parasites and viruses, and one type of infectious protein called prion.

The discovery of disease-causing pathogens is an important activity in the field of medical science. Many viruses, bacteria, protozoa, fungi, helminthes and prions are identified as a confirmed or potential pathogen. In the United States, a Centers for Disease Control program, begun in 1995, identified over a hundred patients with life-threatening illnesses that were considered to be of an infectious cause, but that could not be linked to a known pathogen. The association of pathogens with disease can be a complex and controversial process, in some cases requiring decades or even centuries to achieve.

1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak

The Broad Street cholera outbreak was a severe outbreak of cholera that occurred in 1854 near Broad Street in the Soho district of the City of Westminster, London, England, and occurred during the 1846–1860 cholera pandemic happening worldwide. This outbreak, which killed 616 people, is best known for the physician John Snow's study of its causes and his hypothesis that germ-contaminated water was the source of cholera, rather than particles in the air. This discovery came to influence public health and the construction of improved sanitation facilities beginning in the mid-19th century. Later, the term "focus of infection" started to be used to describe sites, such as the Broad Street pump, in which conditions are good for transmission of an infection. Snow's endeavor to find the cause of the transmission of cholera caused him to unknowingly create a double-blind experiment.

William Budd English physician and epidemiologist

William Budd was an English physician and epidemiologist known for recognizing that infectious diseases were contagious. He recognized that the "poisons" involved in infectious diseases multiplied in the intestines of the sick, were present in their leaks, and could then be transmitted to the healthy through their consumption of contaminated water.

The French Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) and German Robert Koch (1843–1910) are the two greatest figures in medical microbiology and in establishing acceptance of the germ theory of disease. In 1882, fueled by national rivalry and a language barrier, the tension between Pasteur and the younger Koch erupted into an acute conflict.

In biology, a pathogen, in the oldest and broadest sense, is anything that can produce disease. A pathogen may also be referred to as an infectious agent, or simply a germ.

Germ theory denialism is the belief that germs do not cause infectious disease, and that the germ theory of disease is wrong. It usually involves arguing that Louis Pasteur's model of infectious disease was wrong, and that Antoine Béchamp's was right. In fact, its origins are rooted in Béchamp's empirically disproved theory of pleomorphism. Another obsolete variation is known as terrain theory and postulates that diseased tissue attracts germs rather than being caused by it.

Diseases and epidemics of the 19th century Diseases and epidemics of the 19th century reached epidemic proportions in the case of cholera

Diseases and epidemics of the 19th century reached epidemic proportions in the case of one emerging infectious disease: cholera. Other important diseases at that time in Europe and other regions included smallpox, typhus and yellow fewer.


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  7. Thucydides with Richard Crawley, trans., History of the Peloponnesian War (London, England: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1910), Book III, § 51, pp. 131–32. From pp. 131–32: " … there was the awful spectacle of men dying like sheep, through having caught the infection in nursing each other. This caused the greatest mortality. On the one hand, if they were afraid to visit each other, they perished from neglect; indeed many houses were emptied of their inmates for want of a nurse: on the other, if they ventured to do so, death was the consequence."
  8. Nutton, Vivian (1983) "The seeds of disease: an explanation of contagion and infection from the Greeks to the Renaissance," Medical History, 27 (1) : 1–34; see p. 10. Available at: U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health
  9. Lucretius with Rev. John S. Watson, trans., On the Nature of Things (London, England: Henry G. Bohn, 1851), Book VI, lines 1093–1130, pp. 291–92; see especially p. 292. From p. 292: "This new malady and pest, therefore, either suddenly falls into the water, or penetrates into the very corn, or into other food of men and cattle. Or even, as may be the case, the infection remains suspended in the air itself; and when, as we breathe, we inhale the air mingled with it, we must necessarily absorb those seeds of disease into our body."
  10. Varro, Marcus Terentius with Lloyd Storr-Best, trans., Varro On Farming (London, England: G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., 1912), Book 1, Ch. XII, p. 39.
  11. Nutton (1983), p. 4
  12. Nutton (1983), p. 6
  13. Nutton (1983), p. 7
  14. Nutton (1983), p. 20
  15. Nutton (1983), p. 21
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  18. Melvin Santer, "Richard Bradley: A Unified, Living Agent Theory of the Cause of Infectious Diseases of Plants, Animals, and Humans in the First Decades of the 18th Century", in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Volume 52, Number 4, Autumn, 2009, pp. 566–78
  19. Winslow, Charles-Edward Amory (1967). Conquest of Epidemic Disease: A Chapter in the History of Ideas. Hafner Publishing Co Ltd. ISBN   978-0028548807.
  20. From p. 90 of "The invisible world revealed by the microscope or, thoughts on animalcules.", second edition, 1850 (May have appeared in first edition, too. (Revise date in article to 1846, if so.))
  21. John Snow (1849). On the Mode of Communication of Cholera. London: J. Churchill. There is no doubt that the mortality was much diminished, as I said before, by the flight of the population, which commenced soon after the outbreak; but the attacks had so far diminished before the use of the water was stopped, that it is impossible to decide whether the well still contained the cholera poison in an active state, or whether, from some cause, the water had become free from it
  22. Chapelle, Frank (2005). "Ch. 5: Hidden Life, Hidden Death". Wellsprings. New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press. p. 82. ISBN   978-0-8135-3614-9.
  23. Pasteur, Louis (1880) [May 1880]. "(translated from French)" [On the extension of the germ theory to the etiology of certain common diseases]. Comptes Rendus de l'Académie des Sciences. XC. Ernst, H.C. (trans). pp. 1033–44.
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  26. 1 2 Koch Robert (1893). "Über den augenblicklichen Stand der bakteriologischen Choleradiagnose". Zeitschrift für Hygiene und Infektionskrankheiten (in German). 14: 319–33. doi:10.1007/BF02284324.
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