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Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, “The Miasmist: George E. Waring, Jr. and Landscapes of Public Health”
March 11th, 2021 @ 7:30 pm
In 1867, nineteenth-century sanitary engineer George E. Waring, Jr. (1833–1898) published an influential manual entitled “Draining for Profit, Draining for Health,” reflecting the obsessions of his gilded age—wealth, health, and miasma. Even as the germ theory emerged, Waring supported the anti-contagionist miasma theory, positing that disease spread through the air as a poisonous vapor, emerging from damp soil. He applied his knowledge of farm drainage to an urban theory of public health, with a drainage plan for Central Park; a sewerage system for Memphis; a transformation of New York City’s Department of Street Cleaning; and a sanitation plan for Havana, Cuba. Waring’s battle against miasma was an endeavor to transform both the physical landscape and its inhabitants’ morality; his brilliant failure (in scientific terms) is worth reassessing in light of the public health and equity issues arising from today’s pandemic and climate crises.