Article Alert- “Defining a Nuisance: Pollution, Science, and Environmental Politics on Maine’s Androscoggin River”

A new article in Environmental History by Wallace Scot McFarlane looks at the conflict between anthropological, scientific, and managerial definitions of pollution in the 1940s and 1970s. This article contributes to the ongoing discussion in Discard Studies about the contest of what counts as “matter out of place” and the ways misplacement, matter, and place are mobilized by different stakeholders and in different disciplines.


During the first half of the twentieth century, science, and chemistry in particular, played a key role in sanitary engineers’ efforts to understand and control pollution in America’s waterways. This study explores how people’s views of science and the environment were reshaped during the transition from localized nuisance control to concerted environmental action, from the 1940s to the 1970s. Conflict occurred when environmental managers refused to follow in the public’s footsteps by embracing the scientific discipline of ecology. This case focuses on chemist Walter Lawrance’s efforts to control offensive odors on Maine’s Androscoggin River, which were largely the result of several polluting pulp and paper mills along the river. While Lawrance and local residents disagreed over proper methods for pollution control, both parties frequently went beyond the boundaries of science through subjective odor observations or emotional appeals. These individuals and their ideas were influenced as much by the river itself as by the myriad scientific and political communities that they represented.

A thick layer of waste material coats the Androscoggin River in this aerial photo taken just below the Great Falls at Lewiston-Auburn around 1930. By the early 1960s, the Androscoggin had become one of the most severely polluted rivers in the United States. Dissolved oxygen levels from Berlin to Brunswick frequently reached zero during the summer, resulting in the death of virtually all fish and other aquatic life in the river. Courtesy of the Androscoggin Historical Society.