May 29, 1953: Death of Earle B. Phelps

0529 Earle B PhelpsMay 29, 1953: Death of Earle B. Phelps. “Earle Bernard Phelps (1876–1953) was a chemist, bacteriologist and sanitary expert who served in governmental positions and as an academic in some of the leading universities in the U.S. He is known for his contributions in sewage disinfection, water chlorination, sewage treatment, milk pasteurization, shellfish control, and for describing the “oxygen sag curve” in surface water bodies….

After graduating from MIT and until 1903, Phelps worked as an assistant bacteriologist at the famous Lawrence Experiment Station in Lawrence, Massachusetts. From 1903 until 1911, he was a chemist/microbiologist with the Sanitary Research Laboratory at MIT. He also taught at MIT during this period as an assistant professor of chemistry and biology. Early in his career, he investigated a typhoid fever epidemic at the State Hospital in Trenton, New Jersey. During this same period, he worked for the U.S. Geological Survey as an assistant hydrographer. In part, he worked on the purification of industrial wastes and he began his investigations on stream pollution with that agency. In 1910 to 1911 he conducted groundbreaking research with Colonel William M. Black of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the pollution of New York Harbor. This work established for the first time the concept of using dissolved oxygen concentrations in the water as a measure of water quality in the harbor.

In 1913, he left MIT and became the head of the Chemistry Division at the U.S. Hygienic Laboratory in Washington, DC., which was part of the U.S. Public Health Service. Phelps worked with H. W. Streeter who was a sanitary engineer with the Public Health service on the characterization of oxygen depletion in a stream receiving organic wastes. The Streeter-Phelps equation was the first quantitative model that was used to determine the impact of biochemical oxygen demand discharges to surface water bodies. Their equation led to deterministic modeling which made it possible to limit specific discharges from waste treatment plants.

In 1919, Phelps left the Hygienic Laboratory to accept an academic position at Stanford University. Later, he also taught at Columbia University from 1925 until 1943. From 1944 until his death in 1953 he was a professor of sanitary science at the University of Florida at Gainesville. He has been described as a gifted teacher who generously shared his knowledge with his associates and students.

Phelps had a long and distinguished career as a consulting sanitary expert. He worked for many cities helping them resolve problems with water treatment and sewage disposal. From 1907 to 1909, he was a consulting expert for the New Jersey Sewerage Commission. He visited all of the sewage disposal plants in the state and made annual reports on the results of his inspections. He also was retained by the Sewerage Commission of Baltimore, Maryland as a consulting expert in relation to experiments with sewage disposal. Phelps supervised the design and construction of a large number of sewage purification plants including those at Toronto, Canada, Tarrytown, New York, Rahway, New Jersey and Torrington, Connecticut.”

Commentary: This article is taken from the Wikipedia entry that I wrote for Phelps. I knew him from his participation as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the second Jersey City trial that I described in The Chlorine Revolution. He was incredibly accomplished and contributed to many of the water specialties that we engage in today.

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