Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/October 1885/Tommasi-Crudeli on Malarious Countries, and their Reclamation


DISMISSING from scientific terminology the words "marsh miasm" and "marsh soil," and replacing them by "malaria" and "malarious soil," the author traces the fever-poison thus indicated to "an agent which can infect the soil of any country, however that soil may differ from other soils in hydrographical and topographical conditions and geological composition."

This agent is a living organism inferred to exist long before microscopy. That its character should remain uniform in soils the most diverse proves that it can not result from the chemical reaction of these soils. This persistent uniformity is easily understood on the admission that malaria is due to a fermentative organism which finds conditions favorable to its life and its multiplication in soils the most various, as is the case with thousands of other organisms much higher than the rudimentary vegetations which constitute living ferments.

The increasing intensity of the poison in malarious soils abandoned to themselves is especially demonstrable in Italy. Etruscan and Latin cities Rome herself arose in malarious regions, and they flourished mainly on account of the soil reclamation, which in the course of centuries diminished the production of the poison, without, however, succeeding in wholly suppressing it. The abandonment of the reclaiming processes led to the redevelopment of the poison first during the Roman domination in the conquered and devastated Etruria, afterward in Rome herself on the fall of the empire, and finally in Southern Italy. This redevelopment of malaria in the Roman Campagna has been witnessed in times not very remote from ours, localities where it was possible to enjoy summer residence (villeggiatura) having at that season become uninhabitable. In these localities the physical conditions of the soil have not varied for centuries; how, then, can the enormous increase of malaria be due to progressive alteration in the chemical constitution of the soil itself? Admit that malaria consists in a living organism whose successive generations infect to an ever increasing extent the soil which contains it, and the explanation is easy.

Again, in regard to the malarious contents of the atmosphere. If the malarious ferment (fermento malarico) were composed of gaseous emanations from the soil, or of a chemical ferment formed in the soil and raised into the air together with watery vapor, the malarious contents of the atmosphere ought to reach their maximum in those hours when the soil is most warmed by the sun's rays, and in which the evaporation of the water it contains and the chemical processes occurring within it are at their greatest intensity. But it is not so. The malarious contents of the local atmosphere are less in the noonday hours than at the beginning and close of the day—that is, after sunrise and, above all, after sunset. Now, it is exactly at these two periods of the day that the difference between the temperature of the lower strata of the atmosphere and the temperature of the surface of the soil is greatest, and that the currents of air which ascend vertically from the soil into the upper atmosphere are at their strongest. Admitting that the malaria is formed of solid particles of low specific gravity (such as are the germs of the inferior vegetations), we see at once how it ought to accumulate in the lower strata of the atmosphere, especially in those two periods of the day.

The tendency among investigators has always been to attribute this specific poisoning of the air to a living organism which multiplies in the soil; but, unfortunately, the "palustral prejudice," as Dr. Tommasi Crudeli calls it, has led them to examine only the lower organisms which haunt marshes. In 1879 the author, in conjunction with Dr. Klebs, discovered the cause of malaria in a "schizomyces bacillaris," and recently Drs. Marchiafava and Celli have demonstrated that this parasite attacks directly the globules of the blood and destroys them after having determined in them a series of characteristic alterations, which indicate quite certainly the existence of a malarious infection. "Many observations," says the author, "just completed in Rome, would tend to demonstrate that this parasite does not invariably assume the bacillary form described by Klebs and myself; but this purely morphological question need not concern the practical hygienist. For him it is essential to know that he has to deal with a living ferment which can flourish in soils the most diverse in composition, and without the presence of which neither marshes nor pools of putrescent water are capable of producing malaria."

Having incidentally shown that soils may contain this parasite in an inert state and not produce malaria till the circumstances favorable to its activity have arisen, Dr. Tommasi-Crudeli proceeds to demonstrate that among the conditions which assist the development of the malarious ferment contained in the soil and the excessive air accumulation of that ferment in the air, there are three of primary importance, as their concurrence is indispensable to the production of malaria. These are (1), a temperature not lower than 20° C.; (2), a moderate degree of permanent humidity in the malarious soil; and (3), the direct action of the oxygen of the air on the strata of the soil which contains the ferment. If one only of these three conditions be wanting, the development of malaria becomes impossible. Now, this is an important point in the natural history of malaria, as giving us the key to the chief part of the soil reclamation attempted by man.

First, let us take Nature's amelioration of the malarious countries, suspending as she does for a longer or shorter time the production of malaria. Winter, for example, causes in all these countries a purely thermic amelioration—that is, it suspends the production of malaria simply by making the temperature fall below the minimum required for the development of the poison. In fact, there are often, even in winter, sudden outbreaks of malaria when a sirocco-wind raises the temperature above this minimum. Again, during a very warm and dry summer, malaria is not developed, because the sun's rays have exhausted the humidity of the soil, so producing a purely hydraulic amelioration, which, as in the Roman Campagna, in 1881-'82, may last for a considerable time; easily to be dissipated, however, by one steady shower. Finally, there may occur in nature purely atmospheric ameliorations, when the surface of the malarious soil is withdrawn from the direct action of the oxygen of the air by means of natural earth-coverings formed by alluvial deposits of healthy soil, or by means of the "earth-felt" wrought up from the soil by the roots of herbage in a natural meadow.

In their various attempts to suspend the development of malaria from the soil, men have tried to imitate Nature—to eliminate, that is to say, one of the three conditions indispensable to the multiplication of the specific ferment contained in that soil. Naturally enough, they have never attempted thermic ameliorations, such as Nature effects in winter, because it is not in their power to control the sun's rays. They have had to restrict their efforts to either hydraulic or atmospheric ameliorations; but sometimes they have succeeded in happily combining the one and the other—that is, in eliminating at once the humidity of the soil and the direct action of the oxygen of the air upon it.

Hydraulic amelioration has assumed many forms, according to the nature and site of the malarious soil. Drainage, in which the ancient Romans excelled us, has been practiced in Italy both in deep and friable soils and in subsoils compact and almost impermeable, in which latter the "cunicular" drains of the Etruscans, Latins, Volscians, and Romans might even nowadays be studied with advantage.

Sometimes a twofold drainage of the upper, as well as the under aspect of the soil may be practiced—that is, draining the subsoil and increasing the evaporation of the surface water. The cutting down of forests in malarious countries has often proved an excellent means of amelioration; because, by removing every obstacle to the direct action of the sun's rays on the surface of the soil, its humidity during the warm season is sometimes entirely exhausted. In spite of universal experience of this fact, a school originating with the great Roman physician, Lancisi, has sustained the contrary, counseling the maintenance and even the extension of forests in malarious countries. Lancisi was completely possessed with the "palustral prejudice," and believed that the malaria generated in the Pomptine Marshes, and attacking such townships as Cisterna, was intercepted, if only partially, by the forests between, and he therefore opposed the cutting down of the trees and recommended increased planting. He did not know that the malaria was already in the soil and covered by the forest in question. Some thirty years ago the Caetani family, to whom Cisterna belongs, cut down the forest, and twenty years thereafter Dr. Tommasi Crudeli was able to show that the health of the neighborhood had greatly improved in consequence. A commission appointed by the Minister of Agriculture investigated the whole subject of the coexistence of woods with malaria, and in its report issued in 1884 completely disproved the theory of Lancisi and confirmed that of Dr. Tommasi Crudeli.

Absorbent plants have been suggested and used as a means of drawing humidity from the soil, not without success in certain countries really malarious. The prejudice that the malaria is due to the putrescent decompositions of the soil has, in Italy, led to the choice of the Eucalyptus globulus as the tree best adapted to combat the poison, the idea being that the eucalyptus, which grows very rapidly, dries the humid earth, and at the same time by the aroma of its leaves destroys the so-called miasmata. No genuine instance of the eucalyptus having succeeded in its allotted task is yet known to Dr. Tommasi Crudeli, though he does not say that its success is impossible. Had its Italian patrons studied its action in its native Australia, where it flourishes much better than in Italy, they would have known that there are eucalyptus forests in those latitudes where malaria is very prevalent, as has been shown by Professor Liversidge, of the University of Sydney. The cultivation of the tree at the Tre Fontane, near Rome, which it was thought would prove entirely successful in combating the local malaria, disappointed expectations, for in 1882 that hamlet was the scene of a severe outbreak of the fever, while the rest of the Campagna was unusually exempt from it. The eucalyptus, in fact, is a capricious tree in European soil; while in full leaf, during the winter, it is often killed by nocturnal frost, and even by the late frosts of spring, to say nothing of humid cold and other adverse influences not yet formulated by the botanist; again, when the winters are mild and the soil deep, it often shoots up rapidly, only to be snapped asunder by winds of moderate strength. Eucalyptus plantations, moreover, are very costly. If the ground is watery, it has to be drained, otherwise the roots rot; if the ground is heavy, trenches must be dug in it to make room for the long roots of the trees, and often these trenches have to be drained, as is done in the case of olives, in order to prevent the filtration water from stagnating and the roots from rotting. Hydraulic amelioration must have recourse to means less uncertain; and should the conditions of any locality counsel a trial of an absorbent plantation, it should be done with trees of our own hemisphere. The expense is smaller, and the trees are sure not to die.

At best, hydraulic amelioration is never certain, because the slight humidity of the soil necessary to develop malaria may easily be restored to it, even during the warm season. Combination of atmospheric with hydraulic amelioration has therefore been tried: to withdraw, that is to say, the humidity from the soil, while at the same time preventing the direct contact of the air with its malarious strata. Leaving the soil with layers of sound earth spread over it either alluvially or by the hand of man, and also draining the soil itself, was last year, at the instance of Dr. Tommasi-Crudeli, practiced on the grounds of the Janiculan Hill, near the Palazzo Salviati, in the Lungara. The entire area, having been thoroughly well drained and then covered with a dense coating of meadow soil in all those places which could not be paved with street rubble, has since remained without a single case of fever in the numerous personnel of the Military College occupying the Palazzo Salviati, while in the Palazzo Corsini, on the same side of the Lungara, but looking on the grounds of the Janiculan which are still exposed to the air and sun, there have within the same period been not a few cases of fever, some of them fatal.

  1. Abstract by the "Lancet" from an article published in the "Nuova Antologia."