Ultraviolet Light and Sterilization: a History

Department of Science, Technology and Society Spring 2010 Colloquium Series
 
 Speaker:
  Gerard J. Fitzgerald, NYU/UVA
 
       Title:   Turn on the Light:  The Technological Challenge of Airborne Disease Control in the United States, 1930-1947.
 
       Date:
  Thursday, February 18th, 2010
 
       Time:  3:30 – 5:00 p.m.
 
Location:  Rodman Room, A207 Thornton Hall
 
Abstract:
During the 1930s, questions about the nature of airborne disease led American physicians, engineers, scientists, architects, and public health officials to analyze the airborne spread of bacteria and viruses. Interdisciplinary research programs were established by academic, industrial and military researchers to probe not only possible causal relationships between airborne microorganisms and the onset of infection in humans, but to also simultaneously investigate the feasibility of creating airborne disease containment technologies. One such technology, a potential key to a future free from airborne infection, was unveiled in the Westinghouse Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair. The Westinghouse Sterilamp, an ultraviolet lamp with germicidal properties, was developed by Dr. Harvey Rentschler who was the research director at the Westinghouse Lamp Division from 1917-1947. Unable to test the full experimental potential and commercial viability of the Sterilamp through in-house testing before the war, Westinghouse researchers willingly participated in Research Project No. X-231, a joint United States Navy, National Institutes of Health, and General Electric field trial between 1943 and 1945 carried out with large number of barracks bound navy recruits. Postwar debate over the interpretation of the epidemiological data from wartime studies such as X-231, which was codified in a 1947 American Public Health Association committee report, not only doomed the commercial viability of UV based containment technologies but also provides a useful historical case study on the nature of interdisciplinary research at a critical juncture in American history.
 
Brief Bio:
Gerard J. Fitzgerald is a visiting scholar in the University of Virginia Department of Science, Technology and Society and at New York University where his is finishing his first book on the history of airborne disease. He was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology at MIT and a Sitterson Fellow to UNC, Chapel Hill. He has published in the Journal of American History and the American Journal of Public Health. His new work is a sensorial and architectural history of southern textile mills and villages.

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