Judy Waters: Harriet Plunkett's fight for health and science


LUNENBURG — A member of the "great army of working optimists" was how biographer Frances Willard described Pittsfield's Harriet M. Plunkett, citing the opening in January, 1875 of a cottage hospital, House of Mercy, at 214 Francis Ave. Harriet was 50 years old when elected president of the hospital, a busy parent and wife, likely an adept multi- tasker who supported science.

A graduate of Pittsfield's Young Ladies' Institute (near where 510 North Street is today) Harriet became the second wife of Thomas F. Plunkett, who "had a share" in the rising Massachusetts state Board of Health. While typhoid threatened the Berkshires, Harriet focused on an 1800s sanitation movement that sought to help prevent spread of disease. In Plunkett's era many people held the view that vapors from sewers caused illnesses like smallpox, cholera and typhoid, referred to as miasma theory.

From Pittsfield in 1884, she penned her book, "Women Doctors and Plumbers," citing "a new class - the women" who could be a preventive force against illness through insight into household plumbing. "Women can rise above the beaten paths of cookery and needlework" she wrote. Harriet studied drains and discussed miasma theory; she wrote on soil and air quality, damp basements, leaks in sewer pipes, while addressing new theories of illness.

During Plunkett's life, research of Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch and others led to new understanding, known as germ theory, that specific microorganisms, not sewer pipe vapor, caused specific diseases. Still many Americans, including doctors, clung to the miasma view, doubting the new findings (National Institutes of Health).

"Dividing leading scientists of the world" wrote Harriet, on the rift between miasma and germ theories. "No one now doubts that smallpox is produced by the introduction of a germ into the body." she added. Acknowledging the "partisan" impasse of the debate, she marked the "drift" in thinking towards germ theory, an evolution forward.

By the 20th century, cholera, typhoid and smallpox had became controlled in the U.S. and the miasma theory became obsolete — but not without resistance. There was a power in the way miasma theory thinking "mutated" and "adapted" to new scientific findings according to John Whorton in "The Insidious Foe" (NIH).

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"Pure air, pure water, pure soil": Plunkett quoted sanitarians of her century. In 2019 Berkshire concerns about air, water and soil might be directed at PCB cleanups or lake water quality as well as climate change. Meanwhile the current presidential administration proposes to relax oversight of greenhouse gases. It will be future generations that will bear the greatest burden of a warming planet.

With 24 Berkshire women named as board members, the humanitarian Harriet Plunkett led the House of Mercy and helped lay the cornerstone for Berkshire Medical Center, Berkshire Health Systems today. She continued to write on quality of life, after the death of her son. She saw a role for government in human health. Seeing resistance to progress, the Pittsfield optimist chose not to be silent: "Facts are more convincing than assertions" she wrote.

In the face of science denial in the 21st century, Plunkett's contribution to the history of the city's public health and environmental legacy cannot be overlooked. Her timely book did much more than discuss sewer theory: it acted as a call for justice, for an end of corrupt practices that contributed to pollution and to resistance of science.

On health and sanitary reforms she commented, "Like all reforms, when its advocates have been granted scant hearing... soon the restless force of sheer truth will carry it forward in spite of the positive obstructionists or party of apathy." In "Sign of the Times" she described an individual's ability to live in a safe and healthy environment as a human right.

According to NASA(.gov) there is now consensus on the science of climate change. Consciousness of a warming planet grows. Perhaps Plunkett's direction for our own century would be, to release the facts, deal in reality and be heard. During science denial of her day, that's what Harriet M. Plunkett did.

"Women, Doctors and Plumbers" is found in the Local History Dept. of the Berkshire Athenaeum.

Judy Waters is a Pittsfield native and former Richmond resident.


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