The Miasma War! So what the heck is Miasma? Those fans of Charles Dickens can tell you that at one point miasmas were thought to be the main vector for disease transmission. During Dickens’ time in London the air was very foul and rather visible because of wood and coal and it smelled bad due to the lack of indoor plumbing. It was thought that this foul air was the cause of disease. Because our part of North Carolina had a lot of rotting vegetation and swamps there was certainly foul air about and very noticeable illness. So the general thought was that malaria was a result of this bad air.

In the 1850s, two North Carolina doctors had a heated and protracted battle over the cause of malaria in the state. This Miasma War is so famous it even is mentioned on a Wikipedia page (not that Wikipedia is the best source for information.) Dr. Charles Johnson gave a speech debunking the concept of miasma at the North Carolina Medical Society in 1851. This is noteworthy to Chowan County because the written speech was dedicated to Dr. William C. Warren of Edenton, NC, and is 64 pages long. Dr. Johnson found that an accidentally drained millpond in Chowan County allowed vegetation to rot as it dried up and that the enslaved people who lived around the former millpond had less disease and malaria than at any neighboring properties. He also wrote that in North Carolina “we have extensive tracts of swamp land, in which a great number of laborers are engaged every year in getting shingles. These laborers, not only work during the day in these swamps, and drink swamp water, which is greatly discolored by decaying vegetable matter, but sleep in them at night, in open huts or rudely constructed shanties; yet they are decidedly the healthiest portion of the laboring classes in those parts of the State.’ Dr. Johnson then discussed how the fevers, disease and malaria can be found in the mountainous parts of the state where the air is clear and dry.

Dr. Johnson then concludes that “These are some of the facts and circumstances which have induced me to abandon the miasmatic hypothesis; for, whatever this febrific agent may be, if different from the appreciable states of the atmosphere and the earth’s surface, it cannot be traced, as I think I have conclusively shown, by the presence of those conditions of moisture, heat, and vegetation, which are claimed as indispensable for its production. Nor has any chemical analysis, so far, been able to detect it; nor microscopic investigation, although conducted with all the diligence and zeal incident to a fashionable pursuit, as yet revealed it.”

This side of the struggle to understand disease transmission turned out to be a much longer column than anticipated. So next week! The Miasma War! Part 2!


Picture Books

  • Pete the Cat: Crayons Rock – Kimberly & James Dean
  • Robobaby – David Wiesner

Juvenile Fiction

  • The Last Kids on Earth and the Skeleton Road – Max Barllier
  • Max Einstein Saves the Future – James Patterson & Chris Grabenstein
  • Stick Dog Meets His Match – Tom Watson


  • Bitter Pill – Fern Michaels
  • The Evening and the Morning – Ken Follett
  • The Exiles – Christina Baker Kline
  • Ghost Ups Her Game – Carolyn Hart
  • Piecing It All Together – Leslie Gould
  • Shadows in Death – J.D Robb
  • The Stone Wall – Beverly Lewis
  • Thick as Thieves – Sandra Brown

Books on CD

  • Chaos – Iris Johansen
  • Half Moon Bay – Jonathan Kellerman
  • If It Bleeds – Stephen King
  • The Midwife Murders – James Patterson
  • Royal – Danielle Steel

Large Print

  • 1st Case – James Patterson
  • Across the Way – Mary Monroe
  • Children of the Stars – Mario Escobar
  • Deadlock – Catherine Coulter
  • The Lost and Found Bookshop – Susan Wiggs
  • Massacre at Whip Station – Dusty Richards
  • A Pack of Predators – S.I. Soper
  • The Silent Wife – Karin Slaughter
  • The Water Keeper – Charles Martin

Jennifer Finlay is Shepard-Pruden Memorial Library librarian.