Early use of the term ‘malaria’

Early use of the term ‘malaria’

I was reading Robert Sallares’ Malaria and Rome this evening and I noticed some information on the earliest use of the term ‘malaria’ that I thought would be worth sharing.

As we have all learned, malaria comes from the Italian mal’ aria, meaning ‘bad air’. A few other interesting facts:

  • Marco Cornaro’s books Scitture della laguna  published in Venice in 1440 is the earliest use of the term mal aere.
  • Horace Walpole was the first to introduce the word malaria to English literature in his Letters in 1740 : “There is a horrid thing called malaria, that comes to Rome every summer, and kills one” (p. 9).
  • Guido Baccelli’s La malaria di Roma, published in 1878, is the first application of the term specifically to the disease.

Does anyone know of earlier uses of the term?

Source: Robert Sallares, Malaria and Rome: A History of malaria in ancient Italy. Oxford University Press, 2002.



2 thoughts on “Early use of the term ‘malaria’

  1. In James Howell, Paroimiographia Proverbs (1659) p 14, the word “malaria” appears among the Italian proverbs.
    Sanità senza danari, è mezza malaria. — Health without money is half a sickness

    The statement that Walpole introduced the term “mal’aria” into England in 1740 derives from his letter to his cousin, the future politician and general Henry Seymour Conway, being cited by historians, on the basis of the entry in the Oxford English Dictionary. It should be noted, however, that his correspondence was not published until 1820.

    Clearly, this “introduction” was not a public one. John Macculloch’s use of the word is more relevant. However, the OED is not to be trusted as a source of first uses. This is especially the case with medical terms, as the original contributors (elderly clergymen, country spinsters, etc.) did not read medical books in their leisure. The task of revising uses and definitions is an ongoing one.

    Private correspondence of Horace Walpole, earl of Orford, Now first collected vol.1 (1820) p.68

    L J Bruce-Chwatt, John Macculloch, M.D., F.R.S. (1773-1835) (The precursor of the discipline of malariology), Med Hist. Apr 1977; 21(2): 156–165. (at p.156, n.3)

    Followed by Bad Air, Amulets and Mosquitoes: 2,000 Years of Changing Perspectives on Malaria, Malar J. 2013;12(232).

    R. W. McConchie, Lexicography and Physicke: The Record of Sixteenth-Century English Medical Terminology (Oxford, 1997)


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