May 11, 1885: Birth of John R. Baylis

May 11, 1885: Birth of John R. Baylis. “John Robert Baylis (1885–1963) was an American chemist and sanitary engineer. His career extended from about 1905 to 1963 and he is best known for his work in applied research to improve drinking water purification.

Baylis was born in rural Mississippi (Eastabuchie, Jones County) but lived most of his adult life in northern U.S. states. He attended Mississippi State College where he received his bachelor of science degree in 1905. He also received training as a railroad engineer and as a construction engineer for water and sewage plants.

Baylis’s first professional assignment (about 1905) was as manager of the Jackson, MS water works. In 1917 he was hired as a bacteriologist at the Montebello Filter Plant in Baltimore, MD. His tenure there was only nine years and when he left he was the principal sanitary chemist with the department. During his employment at Baltimore he developed a pH meter based on a tungsten wire. The Baltimore water treatment plant was one of the first to use pH for process control. About 1927, he moved his family to Chicago where he was put in charge of water purification research for the city. His job title was chemist, but he developed many of the advances in water treatment during the 1930s and 1940s. These advances included:

  • Preventing corrosion of pipes
  • Filter bed cleaning with a fixed-grid surface wash system
  • Developing activated silica as a coagulant aid
  • Invention of a low-level turbidimeter
  • Initiation of lime use for pH adjustment
  • Pioneering the development of high rate filtration (2 to 5 gallons per minute/square foot)
  • Building an experimental treatment facility to study water purification methods
  • Understanding the causes and cures of taste and odor problems in drinking water

In 1938, Baylis was put in charge of the design of the South District Filtration Plant, which was completed in 1943. He was in charge of the operation of the plant and was named engineer of water purification in 1942, which he held until his death.

In 1935, he wrote a book entitled Elimination of Taste and Odor in Water. The work became a classic in the field of sanitary engineering and paved the way for others to control taste and odor problems. The book goes into some detail on how and where to feed powdered activated carbon (PAC) for taste and odor control.

Perhaps his greatest achievement was the development of PAC. Up until Baylis’s work, activated carbon was only available in granular form which was used in a filtration mode. PAC could be formed into a slurry and fed like any other chemical into the treatment process. He received a U.S. patent for PAC as well as for other water treatment advances.

Baylis was one of the first sanitary engineers to raise concerns about open finished water reservoirs. On November 3, 1938, he testified at a public service commission hearing in Milwaukee. He called the open Kilburn park reservoir a “source of danger” to the health of the city. Baylis said that “…the reservoir should be roofed to prevent pollution from birds, insects, rodents, small animals, dirt, soot, leaves and other debris which he said was in the open water.” It would take many decades before his concerns were codified into a USEPA regulation that deals specifically with this danger to human health.”

Commentary: This is another one of the biographies that I wrote for Wikipedia. I really learned a lot about Baylis that I did not know before.

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