How old is the germ theory of disease?

I’ve recently returned from a trip to Colombia which finished in the Caribbean port of Cartagena. Since my return, I’ve started to read the classic novel by Colombian Nobel prize winning author Gabriel García Márquez “Love In The Time Of Cholera”.

Although the novel does not specifically identify the location of the story, it is very clear that the fictional city is based on Cartagena. The period of the narrative is not spelt out exactly either but is roughly 1880-1930.

Reference is made in the book to the first outbreak of cholera in the city which probably killed around one third of the population. The date was 1849. This made we wonder when the germ theory of disease – which was not applied in this outbreak – was known.

Checking on the relevant Wikipedia page, I was surprised to find how old the theory is and how long it took to be generally accepted:

“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 theoryremained 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.

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.’


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