Bad air, miasma and malaria

Malaria gets its name from the Italian mala aria (bad air), and was originally associated with the swamps and marshlands of Rome. The word was first recorded in English in 1740, when Horace Walpole wrote: “A horrid thing called the mal’aria, that comes to Rome every summer and kills one”. So ubiquitous was the disease that it acquired a specific name– Roman Fever, where its virulence may have contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.

The British were horribly afflicted with both malaria and yellow fever, both prevalent in the tropical and sub-tropical climates of their imperial conquests. Western medical science had not yet differentiated these tropical maladies and concluded that they were transmitted by miasmas – a noxious form of “bad air” that was blamed for many unexplained conditions (for example London’s nineteenth century cholera epidemics).

Italy would continue to be affected by the disease well into the twentieth century. As David Gilmour notes in the excellent The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples, ‘it was not until 1962 that Italy was officially declared a malaria-free country.’

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