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Dirty Old London: How Fake Science Saved Lives In The Victorian Era

Update Date: Jun 13, 2017 04:45 PM EDT

Fake health news was rampant during the Victorian era -- the higher the stakes, the crazier the remedy. Despite ridiculous treatments such as radium for diabetes and heroin for the common cold, some seemingly wacky 19th century ideas about wellness actually helped save lives.

"Miasma," for example, was a popular concept throughout the mid-1800s with doctors, laypeople, and public-health officials.

"The prevailing view was that 'miasma' -- foul smell, particularly the stench of rotting matter -- was the cause of disease. It was an appealing idea - not least because the slums, where epidemics raged, stank," author Lee Jackson told Mental Floss.

The actual cause of disease -- pathogens, or germs -- wasn't discovered until Louis Pasteur (the Father of Microbiology) conducted his famous meat-in-a-jar experiment in the 1860s.

The Victorians made the only assumption that they could -- slums smell, therefore stench causes disease.

According to Jackson, dead bodies were buried right in the middle of neighborhoods.

"Coffins were stacked one atop the other in 20-foot-deep shafts, the topmost mere inches from the surface. Putrefying bodies were frequently disturbed, dismembered or destroyed to make room for newcomers. Disinterred bones, dropped by neglectful gravediggers, lay scattered amidst tombstones; smashed coffins were sold to the poor for firewood," Jackson wrote in his book "Dirty Old London."

As the bodies rotted away, pathogens seeped into the water table, contaminating nearby wells. But, because the germ theory still wasn't understood, Londoners believed it was the reeking smell that was causing all the chaos.

"London's small churchyards were so ridiculously full, that decaying corpses were near to the top soil; 'graveyard gases' were a familiar aroma. In fact, gases from corpses are relatively harmless," Jackson continued.

Sewage was also a factor. In poorer areas, up to 15 families might have been sharing one overflowing outhouse. Due to low funds, slumlords would often refuse to hire "night-soil men." And, like the dead bodies, this sewage overflow problem allowed liquid to leak into the water table.

"The building of a unified network of sewers in the 1850s - '70s undoubtedly saved London from further epidemics of cholera and typhoid. It was done on grounds of 'miasma' but, regardless, the consequences were very positive," Jackson added.

In the end, fake science prevailed. Victorians blamed the smell, ultimately improving public health.

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