December 3, 1842: Birth of Ellen Swallow Richards; 1907: Definition of Sanitary Engineer

Ellen Swallow RichardsDecember 3, 1842: Ellen Swallow Richards was born. “Ellen Swallow Richards is perhaps best known as MIT’s first female graduate and instructor, but launching coeducation at the Institute is merely the first in a long list of her pioneering feats. The breadth and depth of her career are astounding; a 1910 tribute in La Follette’s Weekly Magazine professed that ‘when one attempts to tell of the enterprises, apart from her formal teaching, of which Mrs. Richards has been a part or the whole, he is lost in a bewildering maze.’ Authors and scholars have called her the founder of ecology, the first female environmental engineer, and the founder of home economics. Richards opened the first laboratory for women, created the world’s first water purity tables, developed the world standard for evaporation tests on volatile oils, conducted the first consumer-product tests, and discovered a new method to determine the amount of nickel in ore. And that’s just the short list of her accomplishments. In a nod to Richards’s remarkable knowledge and interests, her sister-in-law called her ‘Ellencyclopedia….’

Ellen Swallow Richards

MIT Laboratory with Normal Chlorine Map for Massachusetts on the Wall

Richards’s research on water quality was even more far-reaching. In 1887 [William R.] Nichols’s successor [Thomas M. Drown] put her in charge of implementing an extensive sanitary survey of Massachusetts inland waters, again for the board of health. The two-year study was unprecedented in scope. Richards supervised the collection and analysis of 40,000 water samples from all over the state–representing the water supply for 83 percent of the population. She personally conducted at least part of the analysis on each sample; the entire study involved more than 100,000 analyses. In the process, she developed new laboratory equipment and techniques, meticulously documenting her findings. Instead of merely recording the analysis data, she marked each day’s results on a state map–and noticed a pattern. By plotting the amount of chlorine in the samples geographically, she produced the famous Normal Chlorine Map, an indicator of the extent of man-made pollution in the state. The survey produced her pioneering water purity tables and led to the first water quality standards in the United States. Her biographer, Caroline Hunt, contends that the study was Richards’s greatest contribution to public health.”

Commentary: There is a rich body of information about the life Ellen Swallow Richards. A video on YouTube with ESR expert Joyce B. Miles narrating is particularly interesting. Below is the Normal Chlorine Map from a book by Ellen Swallow Richards. It shows that chloride concentrations in ground and surface waters increase as one nears the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean. Any significant deviations from the “normal” levels of chloride in a water source indicated sewage contamination.

1203-normal-chlorine-map-thomas-m-drown-ellen-swallow-richardsReferences: Durant, Elizabeth. (2007). “Ellencyclopedia.” MIT Technology Review. August 15, 2007.

sanitary engineering

Mahoning Co. Ohio Sanitary Engineering

December 3, 1907: Address of President of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. During his address on the function of engineering society, he gave a succinct definition of the sanitary engineer. “The sanitary engineer is a specialist in hydraulic engineering in the applications of water supply and drainage as means to secure the well being of the community as respects its public health. His field expands from that of the wise precautions respecting the piping of the individual house, where he touches the craftsmanship of the plumber, up to the broadest problems of sewage disposal and utilization, and the healthful supply of potable water for cities, free from bacterial or inorganic pollution at its source or in transit. His co-workers are the bacteriologist and the physician. It would seem more serviceable however for the purpose in hand to group such men with what are hereafter to be called the civil engineers.” (Hutton 1907)

In an article published two years later, a suggested list of courses for the well-trained sanitary engineer was recommended. “In order to be able to make use of the forces of nature for the promotion of the comfort, health and welfare of mankind, it is necessary to study and to become conversant with them; hence, training in the natural sciences and in mathematics forms the basis of sanitary as well as of all other branches of engineering. The study should include mathematics (arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry and stereometry), astronomy and descriptive geometry; likewise, the physical sciences, mechanics and dynamics, hydrostatics and hydraulics, aerostatics and aerodynamics; the theory of heat, optics, acoustics, magnetism and electricity. It is also necessary for the engineer to have some knowledge of meteorology, climatology, physical geography, mineralogy and geology; furthermore, of general chemistry, metallurgy, and, in particular, of chemical technology. The study of botany, of the trees of commerce and of forestry, is also useful in many ways. In none of these studies, however, can the young engineer student expect to become complete master; even in mathematics, which is to the engineer the basis of all learning, he cannot expect to cover the whole field….

The course of study in sanitary engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston is essentially one in civil engineering, with special attention devoted to sanitary chemistry and sanitary biology, and including some practice in the laboratories.” (Gerhard 1909)


Gerhard, William P. (1909). Sanitation and Sanitary Engineering. New York:Gerhard (self published), 8 & 10.

Hutton, Frederick R. 1907. “The Mechanical Engineer and the Function of the Engineering Society.” Proceedings of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. 29:6, 597-632.

December 2, 1970: USEPA Starts Operations

1202 USEPADecember 2, 1970: The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA or sometimes USEPA) is an agency of the U.S. federal government which was created for the purpose of protecting human health and the environment by writing and enforcing regulations based on laws passed by Congress. The EPA was proposed by President Richard Nixon and began operation on December 2, 1970, after Nixon signed an executive order. The order establishing the EPA was ratified by committee hearings in the House and Senate. The agency is led by its Administrator, who is appointed by the president and approved by Congress. The current administrator is Gina McCarthy. The EPA is not a Cabinet department, but the administrator is normally given cabinet rank.

The EPA has its headquarters in Washington, D.C., regional offices for each of the agency’s ten regions, and 27 laboratories. The agency conducts environmental assessment, research, and education. It has the responsibility of maintaining and enforcing national standards under a variety of environmental laws, in consultation with state, tribal, and local governments. It delegates some permitting, monitoring, and enforcement responsibility to U.S. states and Native American tribes. EPA enforcement powers include fines, sanctions, and other measures. The agency also works with industries and all levels of government in a wide variety of voluntary pollution prevention programs and energy conservation efforts.

The agency has approximately 17,000 full-time employees. and engages many more people on a contractual basis. More than half of EPA human resources are engineers, scientists, and environmental protection specialists; other groups include legal, public affairs, financial, and information technologists.

December 1, 1902: Leal Report to RI Board of Health; 1909: Philadelphia Typhoid Fight

Dr. John L. Leal

Dr. John L. Leal

December 1, 1902: Letter to Rhode Island State Board of Health. Dr. John L. Leal was hired by the Bristol [Rhode Island] and Warren Water Company after the Rhode Island State Board of Health severely criticized them about the sanitary quality of their water supply.

“Gentlemen: We hand you herewith a report upon the sanitary condition of the water supply of this company, of which we wrote you in our letter of October 10th.

This report was prepared by Dr. John L. Leal, and embodies the findings and conclusions of Prof. J.H. Appleton, Prof. F.P. Gorham, and Dr. F.T. Fulton, who, as well as Dr. Leal, made a thorough examination of the water in question and its sources.

John L. Leal, M.D., of Paterson, N.J., A.B., A.M., Princeton; ex-health officer of Paterson, N.J. (for thirteen years); Sanitary Adviser to the East Jersey Water Company (the largest [private] water company in America) and of the Montclair and of the New York & New Jersey Water Companies; President, New Jersey State Sanitary Association, etc., etc., is, we feel, an expert who, you will agree with us, is entirely competent to pass upon the subject at hand….

The findings conclusively establish, as Dr. Leal states in closing his report, that the conditions of the water and the water sheds “do not in any way justify the action of the Board of Health.”

We therefore request that your Board shall, in justice to ourselves and in the interest of those who take our water, withdraw as promptly as may be its recent recommendation to the town of Bristol, and take such other steps as will, as far as possible, make the effect caused by the unwarranted attack made by your Board in its action of October 3rd, upon the sanitary quality of the water and the water sheds of this company. Respectfully, George H. Norman, President.”

Reference: Twentieth-Fifth Annual Report of the State Board of Health, of the State of Rhode Island. 1910. (for the year ending December 31, 1902). Providence, RI:E. L. Freeman Co., 262-3.

Upper Roxborough Filters, with sand in place but before water was let in, 1903.

Upper Roxborough Filters, with sand in place but before water was let in, 1903.

December 1, 1909: An excellent summary of aggressive municipal measures to eradicate typhoid fever from a major city. Municipal Journal and Engineer. Philadelphia Wars on Typhoid. “In an address at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, Dr. A. C. Abbott, Director of the Hygienic Laboratory of the University of Pennsylvania, and former Chief of the Bureau of Health, drew some striking comparisons between the present mortality rate from typhoid fever in Philadelphia and that which existed five years ago. In that time, he declared, by simple municipal measures, such as water filtration, strict supervision of the milk supply, and the cleaning up of river banks, the number of cases of typhoid fever had been reduced by fully 8o percent. Nearly one-half of the remaining cases are imported from other places by Philadelphians returning from their vacations. Still stricter regulation of dairies, the thorough disinfection of all sewage refuse, and, most important of all, the greatest personal care in the treatment of typhoid patients were urged as sure preventives of the disease. The use of uncooked vegetables raised on land fertilized with unsterilized sewage; the eating of raw oysters, not cleanly washed or handled, and the fly pest, which was characterized as a ‘filthy, intolerable nuisance, a disgrace to our civilization,’ were emphasized by Dr. Abbott as easily avoidable causes of the spread of typhoid. Vaccination, as a means of becoming immune to the disease, was described as entirely practicable and effective.”

Reference: Municipal Journal and Engineer. 1909. 27:22(December 1, 1909): 826.

November 30, 1917: U.S. Public Health Service Sanitation near Army Camps

1130 Sanitary Privy ConstructionNovember 30, 1917: Municipal Journal article. How the U.S. Public Health Service Endeavored to Secure Healthful Conditions and Surroundings at Camp Bowie, the Aviation Fields Nearby and the Adjacent Area. “When a million men were ordered into military training in the summer of 1917, it was thoroughly realized that intensive health work would be necessary to adequately protect them from disease. It was also realized that to sanitate only their actual camping sites would not be sufficient. Disease germs will not stop at the camp border; the soldier is bound to mingle with the civilian population. The same restaurant, the same barber-shop, and the same movie attract the soldier and the civilian.

To protect the one it is necessary to protect the other. Insanitary conditions a hundred yards, or a mile, from the camp border may produce an epidemic as quickly as similar conditions within the camp limits….

Though anti-typhoid inoculation has practically eliminated typhoid from the army, it is still rife among the civilian population. Moreover, typhoid is but one of the filth-borne diseases, against most of which there is not a preventative inoculation. The control of these diseases demands a safe method of excreta disposal, whereby infectious material will be prevented from access to food and water supplies and protected from the fly.

In Fort Worth, as a beginning, immediate steps were taken to enforce the ordinance relative to sewer connections, and since work began in May, 2,000 sewer connections have been made. To reach those homes not accessible to the sewers, an ordinance was passed requiring the installation of a sanitary privy, the type of privy being specified. This consists of a fly-proof, tight wooden box with a screened opening in front and a connecting flue pipe behind, which extends above the top of the old privy house for the purposes of ventilation. Tight metallic cans, 15 inches in diameter and 15 inches high, are placed in the box for the catchment of excreta. The boxes and can are uniformly made according to specifications and installed in the old houses. This work has been done under the direction of the city, the installation costing $8.50. The privies are scavenged weekly at a cost of $1.50 per quarter, the full cans being removed and clean cans placed in their stead. The cans to be scavenged are hauled to disposal stations, which are large concrete risers built over sewer mains, and there thoroughly washed and deodorized. Nearly 4,000 of these privies have been installed in Fort Worth, while the incorporated towns of Niles and Polytechnic, adjoining Fort Worth, have also installed the system.”

Commentary: In 1918, influenza killed over 650,000 in the U.S. However, epidemics of typhoid fever and diarrheal diseases were avoided by sanitary conditions such as described in this article. The famous sanitary engineer, George Warren Fuller played a role in the prevention of waterborne disease during WWI. “During the World War, he was a member of a sanitary committee at Washington regulating the engineering planning and sanitation of the various Army camps in this country. As consulting engineer to the U.S. Public Health Service and the to the Construction Division of the Army, he was responsible for a considerable part of the practices which resulted in the unprecedented low typhoid fever death rate in the Army camps.”

References: Hardenbergh, W.A. 1918. “Extra-Cantonment Zone Sanitation.” Municipal Journal. 45:22(November 30, 1918): 423-4.

“Sad Milestone in Sanitary Engineering Progress.” 1934. American Journal of Public Health. 24:8: 895–6.

George Warren Fuller, 1903, 35 years old

George Warren Fuller, 1903, 35 years old

November 29, 1905: Colorado River Flood that Created the Salton Sea

November 29, 1905: Colorado River Flood that Created the Salton Sea

1129 Attempts to Close Canal Intake 3Commentary: The flood that filled the Salton Sea began in earnest on November 29, 1905, but it was not a singular event. As a result of decisions to supply water to an important agricultural area, the disaster seemed to occur in slow motion. Development of the irrigation system for the Imperial Valley occurred over many years and resulted in the construction of a canal that existed in both Mexico and the U.S. In 1905, one of the intakes (“cuts” or “headings”) to take the water from the Colorado River into the canal system began to erode disastrously. The quoted material below is only part of the account. I refer you to the complete book which is available gratis on Google Books.

Reference:  Kennan, G. 1917. The Salton Sea:  An Account of Harriman’s Fight with the Colorado River. New York:MacMillan.

1129 Lower Mexican Intake 2

“Throughout the month of August 1905, the intake continued to widen, with the caving away of its banks, and in September Mr. Harriman and President Randolph decided that an other effort must be made either to close the break, or to regulate and control the flow of water through it. About the first of October, at the suggestion and under the supervision of Mr. E. S. Edinger, a Southern Pacific engineer, an attempt was made to close the channel west of the island by means of a six-hundred-foot barrier-dam of piling, brush-mattresses and sandbags. This dam, which was built in October and November at a cost of about $60,000, might perhaps have checked or lessened the flow through the crevasse if nothing unforeseen had happened; but on the 29th-30th of November a tremendous flood, carrying great masses of driftwood, came down the Gila and increased the discharge of the Colorado from 12,000 to 115,000 cubic feet per second. The dam could not withstand such pressure, and even before the peak of the flood was reached it went out altogether, leaving hardly a vestige behind. As a large part of the island was eroded and carried away at the same time, further operations in this locality were regarded as impracticable. The crevasse had then widened to six hundred feet, and nearly the whole of the river poured through it into the deepest part of the Sink, where there was already a lake with a surface area of one hundred and fifty square miles. The main line of the Southern Pacific, in many places, was almost awash, and the whole population of the Valley was alarmed by the prospect of being drowned out. If the break could not be closed and the river brought under control before the period of high water in the spring and summer of 1906, it seemed more than probable that sixty miles of the Southern Pacific track would be sub merged; that the irrigation system of the California Development Company would be destroyed; and that the whole basin of the Imperial Valley would ultimately become a fresh-water lake.

1129 Intakes for the Imperial Canal 1The difficulty of dealing with this menacing situation was greatly increased by the necessity of furnishing an uninterrupted supply of water to the farmers of the valley while engineering operations were in progress. It would not do to shut the river out altogether, because that would leave without irrigation nearly two hundred square miles of cultivated land. The Colorado must be controlled, but not wholly excluded. Several methods of solving this problem were suggested, but the only two that seemed likely to succeed were advocated by Consulting Engineer Schuyler and Chief Engineer Rockwood. Mr. Schuyler proposed that a new steel-and-concrete head-gate be put in near Pilot Knob, where a solid rock foundation could be secured; that the four miles of silted channel be re-excavated and enlarged by a powerful steam dredge specially built for the purpose; and that the whole low-water flow of the river be then turned through this head-gate into the enlarged canal and thence into the Alamo barranca [deep gully] west of the break. By this means the settlers would be continuously supplied with water, while the crevasse-opening would be left dry enough to close with a permanent levee or dam. The whole work, it was thought, could be finished in three months, or at least before the coming of the next summer flood….

1129 Exploring Salton Sea for the Source of the Waters. January 13, 1905   The task [to close the eroding intake and put the Colorado River back on its previous course] set before Messrs. Randolph, Cory, Hind and Clarke was one that might well have daunted even engineers of their great ability and experience. As the [1906] summer flood approached its maximum, in the latter part of June, the crevasse widened to more than half a mile, and the whole river, rushing through the break, spread out over an area eight or ten miles in width, and then, collecting in separate streams as it ran down the slope of the basin, discharged at last into the Salton Sea through the flooded channel of the New River barranca. Thousands of acres of land, covered with growing crops, were inundated, and thousands of acres more were so eroded and furrowed by the torrential streams that they never could be cultivated again. The works of the New Liver pool Salt Company were buried under sixty feet of water; the towns of Calexico and Mexican” were partially destroyed, and in many places the tracks of the Inter-California Rail road (a branch of the Southern Pacific) and the Holtville Interurban were deeply sub merged or wholly carried away. The wooden flumes which carried the irrigating water over the New River barranca were swept down into the Salton Sea, and 30,000 acres of cultivated land in the western part of the Valley became dry, barren and uninhabitable. At the height of the flood, the Colorado discharged through the crevasse more than 75,000 cubic feet of water per second, or six billion cubic feet every twenty four hours, while the Salton Sea, into which this immense volume of water was poured, rose at the rate of seven inches per day over an area of four hundred square miles. The main line of the Southern Pacific was soon inundated, and five times in the course of the summer the company had to move its track to higher ground.”

1129 Intake No 1, from the North Bank. January 22, 1905

Reference: Kennan, G. (1917). The Salton Sea—An Account of Harriman’s Fight with the Colorado River. New York:MacMillian. beginning at page 50.

November 28, 1837: Birth of John Wesley Hyatt.

1128 John W HyattNovember 28, 1837: Birth of John Wesley Hyatt. Hyatt was an inventor who developed new materials and machines that resulted in hundreds of patents. He is mostly known for his invention of a commercially viable way of producing solid, stable nitrocellulose, which he patented in the United States in 1869 as “Celluloid.” However, he was one of the early developers of commercial filtration systems in the U.S. He invented improvements to mechanical filtration systems, which are called rapid sand filters or granular media filters today. During the 1880s, mechanical filters were installed to remove particles and “organic matter.” Filtration to control microbial pathogens would come later with better bacteriological methods and the maturation of the germ theory of disease.

“John Hyatt, an inventor and manufacturer of Newark, N.J., applied for a patent February 11, 1881, on what was virtually a stack of Clark’s filters, placed in a closed tank and operated each independently of the others by means of common supply, delivery and wash pipes. His application, like Clark’s, was granted on June 21, 1881, and assigned to the Newark Filtering Co. On the same day, Hyatt obtained a patent in England.

Col. L. H. Gardner, Superintendent of the New Orleans Water Co., after making small-scale experiments on coagulation at New Orleans, was convinced that it was more efficacious than filtration for the clarification of muddy water.

Isaiah Smith Hyatt, older brother of John, while acting as sales agent for the Newark Filtering Co., was baffled in attempts to clarify Mississippi River water for a New Orleans industrial plant. Colonel Gardner suggested using a coagulant. This was a success. Isaiah Hyatt obtained on February 19, 1884, a patent on simultaneous coagulation-filtration. Although unsound in principle, it largely dominated mechanical filtration for many years….

Thus in 1880-85 did four men join in the evolution of mechanical or rapid filtration. Clark soon faded out of the picture. Gardner entered it only by suggesting to Isaiah Hyatt the use of a coagulant, and Isaiah Hyatt, still a young man, died in March 1885. John Hyatt was then alone. Already he had taken out 20 filter patents while only two were granted to his older brother. By the close of 1889, John had obtained about 50 patents. Scattered grants in the 1890’s brought his record above 60. Most notable of all these were three on washing systems, including sectional wash; several on strainers for underdrain systems; and two on aeration, primarily in connection with filtration. The Hyatt aeration patents, like those granted to Professor Albert R. Leeds a little earlier, were of little practical importance, but they marked an era in water purification during which stress was laid on the removal of organic matter.”

Reference: Baker, Moses N. (1981). The Quest for Pure Water: the History of Water Purification from the Earliest Records to the Twentieth Century. 2nd Edition. Vol. 1. Denver: American Water Works Association, 183-5.

1128 Hyatt Pure Water  Filter

November 27, 1924: Death of George C. Whipple

George C. Whipple

George C. Whipple

November 27, 1924: Death of George C. Whipple. “George Chandler Whipple (1866–1924) was a civil engineer and an expert in the field of sanitary microbiology. His career extended from 1889 to 1924 and he is best known as a cofounder of the Harvard School of Public Health. Whipple published some of the most important books in the early history of public health and applied microbiology. . . .In 1899, Jersey City, New Jersey contracted for the construction of a new water supply on the Rockaway River, which was 23 miles west of the City. The water supply included a dam, reservoir and 23-mile pipeline and was completed on May 4, 1904. As was common during this time period, no treatment of any kind was provided to the water supply. City officials were not pleased with the project as delivered by the private water company and filed a lawsuit in the Chancery Court of New Jersey. Among the many complaints by Jersey City officials was the contention that the water served to the City was not “pure and wholesome” as required by the contract. Whipple testified as an expert witness for the plaintiff in both trials.”

Commentary: George C. Whipple was a very interesting person. I had the opportunity to go through a small part of the archive that he left to Harvard University while researching my book, The Chlorine Revolution: Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives. I swear that he saved every last piece of paper that he ever touched in his career. It is a fascinating look into the mind of a turn-of-the-century expert in drinking water treatment. Even though he was trained as a civil engineer, he made some of the most important early advances in microscopy and the ecology of lakes and rivers. He invented the Secchi disk that we use today. The original Secchi disk was all white. He created the disk with quadrants that were alternating black and white. Any civil engineer will recognize that arrangement as the same one found on a land surveying target marker. He was one of the first researchers to identify taste and odor problems in water as directly related to the presence of certain algae species. Check out the full biography that I wrote about him on Wikipedia.