Pronunciation: \mī-ˈaz-mə, mē-\
Inflected Form(s): plural mi•as•mas also mi•as•ma•ta
Etymology: New Latin, from Greek, defilement, from miainein to pollute
A poisonous vapor or mist believed to be made up of particles from decomposing material that could cause disease and could be identified by its foul smell. The miasma theory of disease originated in the Middle Ages and persisted for centuries. During the Great Plague of 1665, doctors wore masks filled with sweet-smelling flowers to keep out the poisonous miasmas. Because of the miasmas, they sanitized some buildings, required that night soil be removed from public proximity and had swamps drained to get rid of the bad smells. However, the miasmic approach only worked if something smelled bad. In the winter, sanitation was forgotten.
Miasmic reasoning prevented many doctors from adopting new practices like washing their hands between patients. Lethal agents traveled by air, they thought, not lodged beneath a doctor's fingernail. Although the miasma theory proved incorrect, it represented some recognition of the relation between dirtiness and disease. It encouraged cleanliness and paved the way for public health reform. The pioneer nurse Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) firmly believed in miasmas and became celebrated for her work in making hospitals clean, fresh and airy. The miasma theory also helped interest scientists in decaying matter and led eventually to the identification of microbes as agents of infectious disease.
To this day, the misinformed notion that dead bodies cause disease leads to millions of wasted dollars and energy in areas hit by disasters, attempting to quickly bury or disinfect the dead.
Common current usage includes: an influence or atmosphere that tends to deplete or corrupt also : an atmosphere that obscures (fog)
"The presidential campaign has already become a money miasma, a runaway race to break all fund-raising records. All manner of dodgy election initiatives have been concocted."
— NY Times, (8/7/08)
Thanks to Faith for today's WOTD entry
Wednesday, July 30, 2008