May 5, 1858: Birth of John L. Leal

0313 John Leal @ Beach w- hatMay 5, 1858: 157th anniversary of the birth of John L. Leal, physician and water treatment expert who pioneered chlorine disinfection in the U.S. There are many unsung heroes who contributed significantly to public health at the turn of the 20th century. John L. Leal is one of them and after reading this, I think you will agree that he did more than most to save people’s lives.

John L. Leal was born in the small town of Andes, New York on May 5, 1858. His father, John Rose Leal was a physician who joined the 144th Regiment, New York Volunteers and fought in the Civil War. During the siege of Charleston, South Carolina, John Rose Leal contracted what was most likely a case of amoebic dysentery from contaminated drinking water. He suffered from the disease for more than 17 years before he finally died of it in 1882.

John L. Leal attended Princeton College and graduated in 1880. He went on to Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons finishing his medical education in 1883. He opened a medical practice in Paterson, New Jersey and went to work for the Paterson Board of Health where he remained until 1899. He left City employment and became the sanitary adviser to private water companies including the East Jersey Water Company and the Jersey City Water Supply Company. In 1888, he married Amy L. Arrowsmith and they had one son, Graham, later that year. So far, his life was well spent but not exemplary.

In the field of water supply, there were big moves afoot in the state of New Jersey at the turn of the 20th century. Jersey City had suffered with a contaminated water supply for decades causing tens of thousands of deaths from typhoid fever and diarrheal diseases. In 1899, the City contracted with Jersey City Water Supply Company to build a dam on the Rockaway River and provide a new water supply. The dam created Boonton Reservoir, which had a storage capacity of over seven billion gallons. Leal’s job with the company was to remove sources of contamination in the Rockaway River watershed above the reservoir. Water from the project was served to the City beginning on May 23, 1904.

When it came time for Jersey City to pay the company for the new water supply, they balked. The price tag was steep—over $175 million in current dollars. Using newly developed bacteriological methods, consultants for the City claimed that the water was not “pure and wholesome,” and they filed suit against the company to get a reduced purchase price. The trial that resulted pitted the water quality experts of the day against one another in a battle of expert witnesses. The opinion of the judge was published on May 1, 1909. In that opinion, Vice Chancellor Frederic W. Stevens said that Boonton Reservoir did a good job on average of reducing the bacteria concentrations in the water provided. However, he noted that two to three times per year, especially after intense rainstorms, the reservoir short-circuited and relatively high bacteria levels resulted.

Rather than build expensive sewers that would deal with only part of the bacteria contamination problem (an early recognition of non-point source pollution) Leal and the company attorney argued to install “other plans or devices” that would do a better job. The judge agreed and gave them a little over three months to prove their idea. Leal had decided in May 1909 that it was time to add a chemical disinfectant to drinking water. He was all too familiar with the suffering and death caused by typhoid fever and diarrheal diseases. He knew of some successful instances of using forms of chlorine in Europe, but nothing had been attempted in the U.S. on a large-scale basis or over any continuous time period.

But, there was a problem. The public feared chemicals in their food, medicines and water. Adulteration of food and medicines was rampant during this period, which was faithfully catalogued in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

“How could they know that the pale-blue milk that they bought around the corner was watered, and doctored with formaldehyde besides?. . .How could they find out that their tea and coffee, their sugar and flour, had been doctored; that their canned peas had been colored with copper salts, and their fruit jams with aniline dyes?”(1)

At any conference of water professionals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, strong language was used to oppose chemical disinfection. Even George W. Fuller early in his career was not supportive of chemical disinfectants.

1893, George Warren Fuller: “While chemicals have been of much aid in surgery by bringing about antisepsis and asepsis, it is very improbable that people would allow their drinking water to be drugged with chemicals, even with the view of removing dangerous bacteria–indeed, such a method might prove very dangerous in many cases.”(2)

1894, Thomas M. Drown: “…the idea itself of chemical disinfection is repellent.”(3)

1904, George C. Whipple: “Thus in St. Louis the popular prejudice against the use of alum in clarifying the water is said to be so intense that a local engineer has said ‘it is very doubtful if alum could be used, no matter how excellent the results which might be obtained.’. . .‘We don’t want to drink puckered water.’”(4)

1906, George C. Whipple: “The idea of adding poisonous chemicals [like chlorine] to water for the purpose of improving its quality for drinking purposes has generally been considered as illogical and unsafe. . .”(5)

1906, William P. Mason: “I very much question if the public at large would be willing to disinfect water to-day. We are scarcely driven that far yet.”(6)

1906, P.A. Maignen: “Among the so-called ‘disinfectants’ tried may be cited copper, chlorine and oxalic acid. . .Such poisonous materials should not be permitted to be used on water intended for public supplies.”(7)

Nonetheless, Leal was convinced that adding a disinfectant to the Jersey City water supply was the best course. He had done laboratory studies that convinced him that a fraction of a ppm of chlorine would kill disease-causing bacteria. In the face of the certain disapproval of his peers and possible condemnation by the public, he moved forward. Where he found the courage to follow the path of chemical disinfection when all of the experts railed against it is not known for certain. His father’s gruesome illness and death and the unnecessary deaths he personally observed as Health Officer for Paterson must have contributed to his decision.

However, no chlorine feed system treating 40 million gallons per day had ever been designed or built and if the feed system failed to operate reliably, all of the courage of his convictions would not have amounted to much. He needed the best engineer in the country to do the work. He needed George Warren Fuller. In 1908, Fuller was famous for his work in filtration. He had designed an aluminum sulfate feed system treating 30 million gallons per day for the Little Falls treatment plant. On July 19, 1908, Leal left his attorney’s office in Jersey City and took the ferry to Manhattan. In Fuller’s office at 170 Broadway, he hired the famous engineer (undoubtedly on the basis of a handshake) and told him that the bad news was that he needed the work done in a little over three months.

Ninety-nine days later, the chlorine feed system was built and operational. Calcium hypochlorite (known then as chloride of lime or bleaching powder) was made into a concentrated solution, diluted with water and fed through a calibrated orifice to the water before it traveled by gravity to Jersey City. The feed system worked flawlessly from day one and continued to operate successfully for all of the following days. Liquid chlorine eventually replaced chloride of lime, but September 26, 2012, marks the 104th anniversary of the first continuous use of chlorine on a water supply—the longest period of water disinfection anywhere in the world.

In a second trial, the court vindicated Leal’s decision. Afterwards, the use of chlorine spread like wildfire throughout the U.S. Typhoid fever death rates plummeted and children under one year of age stopped dying by the hundreds of thousands.

John L. Leal was not a physically imposing figure. Photographs of him show a man of average height and build with a kind face. Nothing in his appearance hinted at the steel spine and dogged courage that he possessed. One definition of the word hero reads: “a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.” These days, many people feel that the word hero has been overused in this country. I think that promoting a water treatment process that saves millions of lives qualifies Leal to be known as a Hero of Public Health.

Why doesn’t everyone know about Leal? Another man, George A. Johnson was wrongly given the credit for the idea of chlorinating the water supply for Jersey City. Johnson was able to get away with his charade, in part, because John L. Leal died on March 13, 1914, and Johnson lived for another 20 years.

Still not convinced? Well, you will have to wait for the full story that has been published in my book, The Chlorine Revolution: Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives which will be available for shipment on March 20, 2013.(8)


(1) Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle: With an Afterword by Emory Elliott. New York:Signet Classic, 1990, original copyright 1905, originally published in 1904.

(2) Fuller, George W. “Sand Filtration of Water, with Special Reference to Results Obtained, at Lawrence, Massachusetts.” In American Public Health Association, Public Health Papers and Reports. Vol. 20, Columbus, OH:APHA, 64-71. 1895.

(3) Drown, Thomas M. “The Electrical Purification of Water.” Journal NEWWA. 8 (1894): 183-7.

(4) Whipple, George C. Discussion of “Purification of Water for Domestic Use.” Transactions ASCE. 54:Part D (1905): 192-206.

(5) Whipple, George C. “Disinfection as a Means of Water Purification.” Proceedings AWWA. (1906): 266-80.

(6) Mason, William P. “Discussion.” Proceedings AWWA. (1906): 282-3.

(7) Maignen, P.A. “Discussion.” Proceedings AWWA. (1906): 285-6.

(8) McGuire, Michael J. The Chlorine Revolution: Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives. Denver, Colorado:American Water Works Association. 2013.

Commentary: On May 5, 2013, at Cedar Lawn Cemetery in Paterson, New Jersey, a grave monument was dedicated to Dr. Leal. For 98 years, his grave was unmarked. The granite obelisk has the names of John L. Leal and five members of his immediate family carved on the sides. Under John L. Leal’s name is the descriptor: Hero of Public Health.

May 4, 1916: Sacramento Water Supply

0504 Sacramento Water SupplyMay 4, 1916: Municipal Journal article. Report on Sacramento’s Possible Water Supply. “Sacramento, Cal.-In one of the most comprehensive reports ever made on a water supply for Sacramento, Professor Charles Gilman Hyde and G. H. Wilhelm, engineering experts, have shown that the Sacramento River is the best source of supply for the city. Professor Hyde and engineer Wilhelm were employed several months ago at a cost of $50 for each day they worked. Their report consists of several hundred pages of data, maps, etc. Three sources of supply are treated very thoroughly-mountain, wells and river. Each source of supply is treated independently of the other. The location of the supply distance, route, dams, pipe lines, quantity and quality of supply and cost thereof, are given in each of the three cases.

The mountain supply is shown to be available for a cost of approximately $10,000,000. A well supply may be obtained at a cost of $1,315,000, and the river supply, filtered and purified, will cost $1,288,000. Of the three sources of supply all argument, data and facts pertaining thereto are in favor of the filtration of Sacramento river water. The mountain source, while affording an unlimited supply and carrying with it possibilities for electrical generation, entails an expense which is regarded by city officials as impossible for this city to attempt. The well supply, while moderate in cost compared to that of a mountain supply, the experts show, would only be capable of furnishing 30,000,000 gallons per day, which is held to be too small a supply in view of the probable steady increase in population.

Rapid sand filtration and disinfection are recommended as the best methods for treatment. The capacity of the water works, according to the recommendations, would vary from a maximum of 200 million gallons per day to thirty million gallons per day, and their safe capacity would be between 40 and 50 million gallons per day.”

Reference: “Report on Sacramento’s Possible Water Supply.” 1916. Municipal Journal article 40:18(May 4, 1916): 621-2.

Commentary: And that is exactly what the City of Sacramento did. Later, they added another source and treatment plant on the American River. In 1993, one of the first projects for my firm, McGuire Environmental Consultants, Inc. was to assess the relative health risks of the City of Sacramento using their two sources of supply—the Sacramento and American Rivers.

May 3, 1911: Deodorizing Sewer Gas

0503 Deodorizing Sewer GasMay 3, 1911: Municipal Journal article. Deodorizing Sewer Gas. “While fortunately the majority of American cities do not seem to be troubled with sewer gas, as are so many English cities, there is occasionally one on this side of the ocean which, on account of poor construction or lack of proper maintenance, finds it necessary to adopt some method of diminishing the nuisance from such gas. Among these is the city of Winnipeg, which has been troubled with this question for many years. The latter part of last year a test was made of the Beeman deodorizing machine, ten of these being placed in sewer manholes, where they were operated for three months.

The machine consists of a reservoir containing wood alcohol, the fumes from which impinge upon a disk of platinized porcelain 1 1/2 inches in diameter. This disk, when heated cherry red, remains incandescent so long as the alcohol fumes are supplied to it, which fumes are changed into formaldehyde during their passage over the disk. In addition to the reservoir and disk there are a series of baffles and protectors through which both the formaldehyde and the air from the sewers must pass and which insure a thorough mixing of the two. The whole machine measures about 20 inches in diameter and 40 inches high and is suspended within an air-shaft from the sewer or in the sewer manhole. In the machines used in Winnipeg it was found that one gallon of wood alcohol, costing 62 1/2 cents, lasted nine days. It is suggested that it would not be necessary to place such an appliance in each manhole, but that if one were placed, say, in every fifth manhole the openings in the other four could be closed. City Engineer Ruttan reported that sufficient formaldehyde was produced to deodorize the sewer air that emerged from the manholes. The city of Winnipeg has recently contracted for so of these deodorizers at $75 each.”

Reference: “Deodorizing Sewer Gas.” 1911. Municipal Journal article 30:18(May 3, 1911): 613.

Commentary: Every once in a while, I come across an article in the literature from the turn of the 20th century that is crazy beyond belief. Putting an open flame into a sewer system seems just madness. Several articles in this blog have chronicled sewer gas explosions when open flames come in contact with methane from anaerobic decomposition. Using formaldehyde to “deodorize” sewer gas also seems to be an idea born of madness. They knew back then that formaldehyde was used in the embalming process. They could not have believed that inhaling it would be good for you. Sometimes I just have to shake my head in disbelief. Let’s just say that the Beeman deodorizing machine did not catch on in a big way in U.S. sewer systems.

May 2, 1973: Well Drilling–Bring in the Jetting Machine

0502 Dayton Iowa Well DrillingMay 2, 1973: Bring in the Jetting Machine. Being a well driller himself, Wayne Tell of Tell Well Co., Dayton, Iowa, was intrigued when his local paper, the Dayton Review, ran this photo on May 2, 1973. He cut it out and saved it and now shares it with his fellow industry members. According to the newspaper account, the photo was taken between 1880 and 1890 and shows the work under way for the drilling of the town well by A. G. Olson’s Well Drilling Machinery. From the left are Adolph Anderson, Robert Anderson, an unidentified man, and Andrew Olson. If you look toward the center of the picture you’ll see something that looks like a giant corkscrew. Tell says it was called a ram’s horn and was used for rock removal. Tell believes that the drillers first tried using the auger machine on the left and when that proved unsuccessful, the jetting machine on the right was brought in to complete the job. The 5-inch diameter, 350-foot-deep well was used into the early ’30s at which time a new one was drilled to 1250 feet and is still in use today. Tell says the original well has been sealed.

May 1, 1913: Collapse of a Large Steel Pipe

0501 Collapse of Steel PipeMay 1, 1913: Engineering News article. Collapse of a Large Steel Pipe. “A steel pipe, 14 ft. in diameter, connecting two reservoirs of the Balleville Hydroelectric Co., near Fremont, Ohio, recently collapsed, while being filled with water. The views herewith show the nature of the failure and give some idea of the construction and arrangement of the pipe. Examination of the design shows that the pipe was entirely inadequate to withstand the distorting effect of the weight of water contained in the pipe, and that

it was bound to fail.

The construction of the pipe is described in Power of Mar. 18, 1913. The pipe. sheet was 5/16 in. thick. The individual rings were 6 ft. 8 1/2 in. long, and over the joints were stiffening rings, each consisting of one 6x4x3/8-in. angle (presumably with 6-in. leg outstanding). These angle rings were spliced at the horizontal diameter by splice plates 15 in. long.

The pipe was supported every 14 ft. along its length by two concrete piers 2×2 ft., spaced 6 ft. apart transversely, capped with steel shoes.

When the pipe was about full, a length of some 600 ft. collapsed in the way the views show, starting at a point 200 or 300 ft. below the headgate. The angle stiffening rings broke at the splice on the horizontal diameter and the outstanding legs buckled at the top of the pipe.”

Reference: “Collapse of a Large Steel Pipe.” 1913. Engineering News article 69:18(May 1, 1914): 909.

April 30, 1991: Drought Cartoon; 1847: Birth of William Ripley Nichols

0430 Drought CartoonApril 30, 1991: Drought Cartoon. The Los Angeles Times has published cartoons over more than 100 years that depict the many droughts that California has suffered and the reactions to them. Here is one that I think you will enjoy.

0430 William Ripley NicholsApril 30, 1847: William Ripley Nichols is born. “William Ripley Nichols (April 30, 1847 – July 14, 1886) was a noted American chemist [only 39 years old at his death]. Nichols was born in Boston, Massachusetts, graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1869, and served there as instructor and assistant professor until 1872, when he was elected professor of general chemistry, which chair he retained until his death in Hamburg, Germany. Professor Nichols was recognized as an authority on sanitation, and particularly on water purification, published numerous papers on municipal water supplies, and was active in the pioneering work of the Lawrence Experiment Station. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of which he was Vice President in 1885, and of the German Chemical Society.”

Nichols was also a mentor to Ellen Swallow Richards at MIT. “In 1887, the laboratory, directed by Thomas Messinger Drown, conducted a study under Richards of water quality in Massachusetts for the Massachusetts State Board of Health involving over 20,000 samples, the first such study in America. Her data was used to find causes of pollution and improper sewage disposal. As a result, Massachusetts established the first water-quality standards in America and its first modern sewage treatment plant at Lowell, Massachusetts.”

Commentary: This post completes three years and eight months of daily blogging on This Day in Water History. I started the process to spread the word about water history to those who might be interested, and instead, I ended up teaching myself more than I could have imagined about the field of sanitary engineering and water history in general. Many thanks to all of you who have joined with me on this ride into the past.

April 29, 1915: Sewer Gas Explosion

0429 Strike a matchApril 29, 1915: Municipal Journal article. Fatal Explosion in Sewage Disposal Plant. “Ocean Grove, N. J.-An explosion in the valve chamber of the larger of Ocean Grove’s two septic tank plants on the afternoon of April 25 injured three men, one of whom died the next day of his injuries. In this plant are four tanks, each 13 by 93 1/2 feet, built side by side. Across one end is a detritus chamber, 57 feet long by 5~ feet wide, and above this is a valve operating chamber, 57 feet long, 8 feet wide and 6 feet high. The whole structure is built of reinforced concrete.

On the day named the designing engineer of the Ocean Grove plant, Clyde Potts, of New York, was showing it to a party of officials from South Bound Brook, accompanied by Walter C. Bowen, sanitary engineer of New Brunswick. Councilmen Raymond Stryker and Karlson La Rue descended the ladder into the valve chamber, followed by Mr. Bowen. Mr. Stryker, on reaching the bottom, struck a match to light a cigar, when a flame burst out of the manhole which blew Bowen to the surface with his face seared and clothing on fire. Stryker, on the floor, was knocked down and, as the flames burned above him, escaped with less injury. La Rue was blown to the manhole opening, and as he clung there, resting on his chest, during the 15 seconds through which the flame roared out of the opening, he was burned on every part of his body except his chest. La Rue and Bowen were hurried to the hospital, where the former died on Monday night. Mr. Bowen will probably be able to leave the hospital in a week or two.

What gas caused the explosion and how it reached the plant are not known. Mr. Potts had previously thought he detected the odor of illuminating gas [methane] at the plant. He expects to endeavor in a few days to ascertain the origin of the gas with a view to preventing a repetition of the occurrence.”

Reference: “Fatal Explosion in Sewage Disposal Plant.” 1915. Municipal Journal article 38:17(April 29, 1-915): 597.

Commentary: Seriously? Mr. Stryker struck a match? Despite the strange juxtaposition of name and action, this is a sad tale of death caused by entry into a confined space. It would be many decades before this unnecessary loss of life was eliminated by strict rules that require evacuation of potentially toxic or explosive gases from sewers and other confined spaces. If you ever wondered why OSHA regulations were enacted, this is a good example. By the way, the source of the explosive gas is no mystery. Any anaerobic degradation of organic wastes would have produced plenty of methane that would have ignited explosively when Mr. Stryker lit his cigar.