The Physician Who Presaged the Germ Theory of Disease Nearly 500 Years Ago

January 2021

Hi ___,

Hope you’re doing well. I’m a freelance writer from Cardiff, UK, and I’d like to pitch SciAm a profile of Girolamo Fracastoro, an Italian physician who in 1546 proposed the first theory of disease transfer, laying the groundwork for epidemiology as we know it today.

Fracastoro is most famous for his involvement with syphilis, the name of which is derived from an epic poem of his (he was a poet and a scholar, too). However, he should perhaps be better remembered for his role in the early formation of a theory of epidemiology.

In 1546, Fracastoro outlined his concept of epidemic diseases in “On Contagion and Contagious Diseases”, proposing that diseases are transferred via minute bodies, and in three ways: by contact; by carriers such as clothing, and through the air. This was the first scientific statement of the true nature of infection. Fracastoro’s influence faded in the next couple of centuries until Koch and Pasteur’s germ theory of the 1700s, but their theory wouldn’t have been possible without Fracastoro laying the groundwork for it. In many ways, Fracastoro’s theories paved the way for the understanding of disease we find ourselves with today – important now more than ever.

When I came across Fracastoro and this story, I couldn’t believe that no publications had related his life and legacy to the coronavirus crisis. I could have a profile of Fracastoro (~800 words, I imagine) over to you by the end of next week.

Let me know what you think – my previous writing can be found here.