Revisiting the Miasma Theory

Cholera “tramples the victors & the vanquished both.” Robert Seymour. 1831. U.S. National Library of Medicine / Wikipedia, Public Domain.

19th century sanitation engineer George E. Waring, Jr. was a miasmaist. He believed in the miasma theory, which holds that toxic vapors emanated from damp soil, rotted vegetation, and pools of standing water. These toxic vapors were understood to be created by the Earth and interact with the atmosphere and cause disease in American cities.

According to Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the Bernard & Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York, Waring was a “marginal figure,” but he had interesting ideas about how to “modify the climate to improve health.” In a virtual lecture hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Seavitt Nordenson said Waring was incorrect about the mechanisms for spreading disease — he didn’t understand the concept of vectors, like mosquitoes — but his drainage and sanitation solutions were “surprisingly successful.” A year into the coronavirus pandemic, it’s worth revisiting Waring’s ideas about the connections between the Earth, atmosphere, disease — and the maintenance of public spaces.

Colonel George E. Waring, Jr., full-length seated portrait, New York, NY, 1897. Photo by Hollinger & Rockey. / Library of Congress

Waring wrote numerous books, created the drainage plan for Central Park, and later became an influential sanitation commissioner of New York City. Born in Pound Ridge, New York, in 1833, he studied agricultural chemistry. In his early 20s, he wrote a book on scientific farming that explored “atmospheric and molecular matter, the interchange of Earth and air,” Seavitt Nordenson explained. He called for “mechanical cultivation to reduce water in soil” through the use of “thorough under draining, deep disturbance of the soil, and trenches.”

Because of this book, he was later hired by former U.S. presidential candidate Horace Greeley to create a drainage system for his farm in Chappaqua, New York. At his estate, Waring created an elaborate herringbone-patterned drainage system that directed water to streams, with the goal of improving the marshy soil for farming, but he would soon also use for eradicating imagined wet soil-borne disease.

Later, in 1857, Waring apprenticed as a drainage engineer with Egbert L. Viele, who had previously created a comprehensive survey and study of Manhattan, examining the marsh, meadow, and constructed lands of the island. The study included the land that would make up the future Central Park, a land that had been home to the freed Black community of Seneca Village, which was later cleared by the city government to make way for the park. Waring’s early drainage studies of Manhattan informed the many entries submitted as part of a design competition for the new Central Park.

In 1858, Waring was promoted to drainage engineer by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Calvert Vaux, who won the design competition for Central Park. Waring created an elaborate drainage system for the park landscape, which included low-lying wetlands. Waring had found favor with Olmsted. “Olmsted too was a miasmaist. Draining the park was framed as disease suppression.”

Men Standing on Willowdale Arch, Central Park, New York, NY, 1862. Waring is second from left. Photo by Victor Prevost. / New York Public Library

Considered the largest drainage project of his time, Waring designed a comprehensive system that directed water to constructed lakes and reservoirs. By 1859, the lower part of the park had been drained through a series of ceramic tubes buried deep into the soil that piped water directly to streams and ponds. “There was a mechanical movement to the low points,” where water would flow to.

George E. Waring, Jr., Map of Drainage System on Lower Part of the Central Park, New York, NY, 1859. / New York Historical Society.

With the onset of the Civil War in 1861, Olmsted left his position at Central Park and became executive secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, where he was charged with reducing the death rate from disease for 8,000 sick and wounded soldiers. Olmsted created field hospitals in places he thought free of dangerous miasmas. Meanwhile, Waring resigned from Central Park work to become a major and lead cavalry in the Civil War.

After the Civil War and the publication of his book Drainage for Profit, Drainage for Health, Waring took up a post in Memphis, Tennessee, a city that had suffered severe epidemics of cholera and yellow fever, killing some 5,000 people in 1878 alone. While Waring didn’t understand the mosquito was a key disease vector, his plan for attacking standing water in building basements and streets had a positive effect on reducing disease. His comprehensive plan to separate the conveyance of stormwater and sewage, which was eventually implemented by the city, ended the health crisis.

Upon returning to New York City as sanitation commissioner, Waring applied his miasma theory to cleaning up the streets of the city. At the time, horses were leaving millions of pounds of manure and urine on the streets each day. Horse corpses were also left to rot. Garbage piles ran feet-deep and were cleared by ad hoc groups of unemployed.

Seavitt Nordenson thinks Waring elevated street cleaning and maintenance into a “performance,” targeting garbage as contributing to disease and declining morals. Taking a “militaristic approach,” he hired an army of sanitation workers that he dressed in all white. Nicknamed the “white wings,” they were given hand carts and brooms and also took on snow removal.

“White wings” sanitation workers, during Waring’s era / The Bowery Boys, NYC History

Waring would lead parades on horseback, with thousands of sanitation workers in army formation marching down the street. “It was a triumph of sanitation.”

Sanitation workers on parade, 1896. Organized by George Waring / Discovering NYC Twitter

After leaving the sanitation department of New York, Waring was dispatched to Havana, Cuba, by President McKinley to help solve their yellow fever epidemic. Until 1902, the U.S. had a colonial presence in Cuba, and American soldiers were dying of disease. While establishing Havana’s department of street cleaning, Waring contracted yellow fever from a mosquito. A day after his return to New York, he died, his remains quarantined on an island in New York Harbor.

Seavitt Nordenson said the legacy of miasmaists like Waring and Olmsted is the public health focus on the air — the intermixing of atmosphere and Earth. While Waring was a “brilliant failure” in terms of his scientific theories, a “great mind but incorrect,” Seavitt Nordenson also wondered: was he right?

During the pandemic, everyone has become a miasmaist to a degree, imagining the invisible droplets we know are floating in the air.

Seavitt Nordenson is currently completing a book on this topic with the University of Texas Press, with support from the Graham Foundation and the Foundation for Landscape Studies.

2 thoughts on “Revisiting the Miasma Theory

  1. Randal Romie 03/19/2021 / 6:53 am

    I found this quite interesting and a worthwhile look at how and why we make public sanitation a real issue. This page of history brings appreciation for what we have today, and knowledge of, however right or wrong in theories, how we survived and learned to get where we are now.

  2. Frederick Steiner 03/24/2021 / 9:10 am

    Interesting, informative work.

Leave a Reply to Randal Romie Cancel reply