Monthly Archives: March 2018

March 20, 1847: Ignaz Semmelweis Takes on Childbirth Fever

March 20, 1847: First official day that Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis assumed his position as assistant physician in the maternity clinic in Vienna, Austria.  Semmelweis is credited with recognizing the high death toll among women during childbirth caused by physicians using unsanitary procedures.  He instituted the disinfection of physicians’ hands with a concentrated chlorine solution and the death rate of new mothers plummeted.  His research and practical applications assisted later proponents of the germ theory of disease and also indirectly contributed to the use of chlorine for disinfection of drinking water.

Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (July 1, 1818 – August 13, 1865) (born Ignác Fülöp Semmelweis) was a Hungarian physician now known as an early pioneer of antiseptic procedures. Described as the “savior of mothers”, Semmelweis discovered that the incidence of puerperal fever could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection in obstetrical clinics. Puerperal fever was common in mid-19th-century hospitals and often fatal, with mortality at 10%–35%. Semmelweis postulated the theory of washing with chlorinated lime solutions in 1847 while working in Vienna General Hospital’s First Obstetrical Clinic, where doctors’ wards had three times the mortality of midwives’ wards. He published a book of his findings in Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever.

Despite various publications of results where hand-washing reduced mortality to below 1%, Semmelweis’s observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time and his ideas were rejected by the medical community. Some doctors were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands and Semmelweis could offer no acceptable scientific explanation for his findings. Semmelweis’s practice earned widespread acceptance only years after his death, when Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory and Joseph Lister, acting on the French microbiologist’s research, practiced and operated, using hygienic methods, with great success. In 1865, Semmelweis was committed to an asylum, where he died at age 47 after being beaten by the guards, only 14 days after he was committed.”

Reference: Semmelweis, Ignaz. The Etiology, Concept, and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever. Translated by K. Codell Carter. Madison:University of Wisconsin. 1983.


March 19, 1842: Birth of Thomas M. Drown

March 19, 1842:  Thomas M. Drown is born. Drown was known as a chemist and metallurgist and he was the fourth President of Lehigh University. “In the 1880s, Drown held a leadership post in chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He helped start MIT’s chemical engineering curriculum in the late 1880s. In 1887, he was appointed by the newly-formed Massachusetts Board of Health to a landmark study of sanitary quality of the state’s inland waters. As Consulting Chemist to the Massachusetts State Board of Health, he was in charge of the famous Lawrence Experiment Station laboratory conducting the water sampling, testing, and analysis. There he put to work the environmental chemist and first female graduate of MIT, Ellen Swallow Richards. This research created the famous “normal chlorine” map of Massachusetts that was the first of its kind and was the template for others. As a result, Massachusetts established the first water-quality standards in America, and the first modern sewage treatment plant was created.”

Commentary: Drown taught all of the famous engineering graduates from MIT who we revere today—George Warren Fuller, George C. Whipple and Allen Hazen (chemistry courses). 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.

The Normal Chlorine Map

March 18, 1915: Chlorination at Bubbly Creek Filtration Plant

Chicago, Union Stockyards, 1908

March 18, 1915:  Engineering News article. Liquid Chlorine at the Bubbly Creek Water-Filtration Plant. By C. A. Jennings. “The Bubbly Creek filter plant at the Chicago Stock Yards set the lead in the use of hypochlorite of lime in this country for water disinfection. This was during the summer of 1908. Subsequently experiments were begun at this plant with an electrolytic cell for the production of chlorine from salt brine. These experiments were carried out very extensively and thoroughly. The writer finally concluded that in comparison with hypochlorite and liquid chlorine, the production of chlorine for water disinfection by means of an electrolytic cell was expensive, uncertain and demanded considerable attention.

Very recently a liquid-chlorine apparatus was purchased. Chlorine is received in cylinders that hold 105 lb. of the liquefied gas. From the experience gained by operating this apparatus during the past month the writer has concluded that in comparison with the use of hypochlorite at the Bubbly Creek filter plant–

  1. There is considerably less labor involved.
  2. The absorption of the gas by the water is more


  1. There is no loss of chlorine, and smaller quantities can be used to accomplish equivalent results.
  2. There is no deterioration of the chlorine in the cylinders while using or while stored.
  3. The changing of the rate of application is easily, quickly and accurately accomplished.
  4. There is no odor of chlorine about the plant.
  5. The cost is considerably less.

Reference:  Jennings, C.A. 1919. “Liquid Chlorine at the Bubbly Creek Water-Filtration Plant.” Engineering News article 73:11(March 18, 1915): 555.

Commentary:  Jennings is one of the engineers who spread the myth that chlorination of water at the Bubbly Creek plant was somehow a breakthrough for water disinfection. Publications by him and the man who wrongly claimed credit for the first use of chlorine in drinking water (George A. Johnson) resulted in Dr. John L. Leal not receiving the proper credit for his work at Boonton Reservoir on the Jersey City, New Jersey water supply in 1908. The water from the Bubbly Creek plant was fed to cows and pigs and was not considered suitable for human consumption.

March 17, 1909: Chlorination at Poughkeepsie, NY

March 17, 1909:  Drinking water chlorination begun at Poughkeepsie, New York. Chlorine was tested at the Poughkeepsie, New York filter plant in early February 1909 but the application of chlorine on a permanent basis at Poughkeepsie did not begin until March 17, 1909. Therefore, the Poughkeepsie water supply was the third example of chlorine disinfection in the U.S. and the first time that chlorine was used as an adjunct to slow sand filtration. George C. Whipple suggested the third application of chlorine to a water supply in a report to the City.  As noted in The Chlorine Revolution:  Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives, Whipple was on the opposite side from Dr. John L. Leal in the two Jersey City trials.  Poughkeepsie, NY is a medium-sized city that is located on the Hudson River about 70 miles north of New York City.

Whipple recommended that the coagulant preceding the slow sand filter at Poughkeepsie be replaced with chloride of lime, which began as a test on February 1, 1909.  On March 17, 1909, continuous chlorination was begun using a permanent chemical feeding apparatus.

March 16, 1802: Corps of Engineers Established; 1804: Birth of Chester Averill

March 16, 1802:  President Jefferson authorized to establish the Corps of Engineers. “The history of United States Army Corps of Engineers can be traced back to 16 June 1775, when the Continental Congress organized an army with a chief engineer and two assistants. Colonel Richard Gridley became General George Washington’s first chief engineer; however, it was not until 1779 that Congress created a separate Corps of Engineers. One of its first tasks was to build fortifications near Boston at Bunker Hill. The first Corps was mostly composed of French subjects, who had been hired by General Washington from the service of Louis XVI.

The Corps of Engineers as it is known today came into being on 16 March 1802, when President Thomas Jefferson was authorized to ‘organize and establish a Corps of Engineers … that the said Corps … shall be stationed at West Point in the State of New York and shall constitute a Military Academy.’ Until 1866, the superintendent of the United States Military Academy was always an engineer officer. During the first half of the 19th century, West Point was the major and, for a while, the only engineering school in the country. The Corps’s authority over river works in the United States began with its fortification of New Orleans after the War of 1812.”

Chester Averill

March 16, 1804:  Birth of Chester Averill who became a Professor of Chemistry at Union College in Schenectady, New York.  Averill is known for a letter that he wrote to the Mayor of Schenectady, New York during the 1832 cholera epidemic which praised the disinfecting properties of chloride of lime (chlorine).  The treatise quoted many learned men of the time who demonstrated that chloride of lime eliminated the spread of contagious diseases by attacking the miasmas associated with them.  The letter also made reference to the destruction of certain “viruses” that may have been responsible for transmission of the diseases.

Commentary:  Averill’s letter is an extraordinary document that is worth reading. He was far ahead of his time. Indeed, he preceded Dr. John Snow’s conclusions about cholera transmission (1849) by 17 years.

March 15, 1813: Birth of Dr. John Snow

Dr. John Snow

March 15, 1813:  Birth of John Snow. Dr. John Snow (March 15, 1813–June 16, 1858) is famous for the Broad Street Pump episode but he accomplished so much more than that. He was first and foremost a physician who trained in England in the early part of the 19th century. He made significant contributions to the development of anesthesia and he is considered by many to be the Father of Modern Epidemiology.

The story of Dr. John Snow and how he discovered the cause of a cholera epidemic in the Golden Square neighborhood of London in 1854 has reached almost mythical proportions in public health literature.  Three excellent books describe Snow’s life and the details of the Broad Street Pump incident. (Hempel 2007; Johnson 2006; Vinten-Johansen et al. 2003)

Snow was born on March 15, 1813 in the City of York.  He served his medical-apothecary apprenticeship in Newcastle-on-Tyne with later assistantships in the villages of Burnop Field and Pateley Bridge.  In 1836 at the age of 23, Snow moved to London to complete his medical education.  He qualified as a licensed apothecary in 1838 and a surgeon with a London practice in October 1838.  With an office in the parish of Saint Anne-Soho, Snow would have a medical career of only two-dozen years before he was struck down at the age of 45.

At the age of 17, Snow became a vegetarian and soon thereafter committed to only drinking boiled water or, preferably, distilled water as a result of the writings of John Frank Newton.  He embraced abstinence from alcohol around 1836.  Snow was known to be quiet, frugal and energetic, a man of integrity and a surgeon with an indifferent bedside manner.  He refused to dispense pills and other medicines just because his patients wanted them.  He was able to make a living and acquire some success as a physician when he perfected the administration of chloroform as an anesthetic used during surgeries and infant deliveries.  He even delivered two babies while attending Queen Victoria.

He never married.  His solitary existence and his abstinent personal habits allowed him more time than his colleagues to develop his medical practice and enabled him to pursue his intense interest in determining the cause of cholera epidemics.

Snow gave away all of the knowledge he developed.  He made it available for free to any doctor who wanted it.  No attempt was made by him to patent his many devices for dispensing chloroform and ether. As a result, physicians hired him to use his skill with their patients and he became famous for this.

One overriding personal characteristic of this ascetic doctor of the Victorian era was courage.  He worked hard to develop his ideas and used the scientific method and laboratory investigations to establish his case in whatever area he was working.  Once he became convinced of the rightness of his position, nothing could dislodge him.  It was only his tremendous courage that made it possible for him to go up against the establishment and argue that something other than foul air was causing the deadly cholera. (McGuire 2013)

Snow’s determination of the cause of the cholera epidemic near the Broad Street pump and his ability, albeit temporary, to have the pump handle removed is worthy of recounting here.  The 1854 cholera epidemic struck the Golden Square neighborhood of London with particular viciousness. It began on August 31 and started to wind down about September 7, however, many died over the next few days. Well over 500 people died during this epidemic in a small neighborhood. Snow tracked the numbers of deaths in the neighborhood, and it was clear to him from the pattern of death that the Broad Street pump was the center of the affliction and most likely the source of infection. On September 7, Snow convinced the Board of Governors and Directors of the Poor of St. James Parish that the epidemic was being caused by water from the pump. The next day the commissioners ordered that the pump handle be removed. Structural defects in the Broad Street well sump and the cross-connection to the nearby house sewer were not corrected until 1855.

Incredibly, the residents of Broad Street petitioned the Commissioners to reopen the well that had caused hundreds of deaths in their neighborhood.  This was partly due to the official linkage of the severe, isolated epidemic in the Broad Street area to miasma (foul air). In an amazing footnote to history, the commissioners voted 10 to 2 to reopen the well on September 26, 1855, one year and one week after the last deaths during the epidemic.  According to contemporary reports, there was much rejoicing in the street that the Broad Street well was reopened.  The polluted well was not permanently closed until the cholera epidemic of 1866.

With the emphasis on the Broad Street pump episode in most historical accounts, his pioneering work in epidemiology based on cholera occurrence in a district of London served by two water supplies usually gets lost.  Snow was able to demonstrate that homes in areas of London that were being served contaminated water from the tidal portion of the Thames Estuary were far more likely to have cholera deaths than the homes served water from an unpolluted upland source. He believed that dumping sewage into a water supply perpetuated the death spiral caused by cholera and other waterborne diseases. Snow had strong opinions on sewers and drinking water systems.

“Snow who distilled his own drinking water, agreed that London water should be improved, but he considered the abolition of cesspools and the increasing preference for water closets a sanitary disaster…water closets connected to sewer lines that emptied into rivers also used for metropolitan drinking water were, in his mind, primarily an efficient means of recycling the cholera agent through the intestines of victims as rapidly as possible.  Sanitary reforms were needed, but flushing the waste of a town into the same river by which one quenched ones’ thirst seemed sheer stupidity.” (Vinten-Johansen et al 2003)

Dr. John Snow died of a stroke on June 16, 1858, 42 days after the birth of John L. Leal who grew to be a physician who carried on Snow’s concern about the ability of contaminated water to spread disease.  If the discoveries of Dr. John Snow had been accepted and followed by engineers, sewer planners and drinking water providers beginning in 1854, millions of deaths would have been avoided.  Snow was only one person trying to overcome the juggernaut of the miasma theory.  He was far ahead of his time.


Hempel, Sandra. 2007. The Strange Case of the Broad Street Pump: John Snow and the Mystery of Cholera. Los Angeles, Ca.: University of California.

Johnson, Steven. 2006. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World, New York City, N.Y.: Riverhead Books.

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

Vinten-Johansen, Peter, Howard Brody, Nigel Paneth, Stephen Rachman and Michael Rip. 2003. Cholera, Chloroform, and the Science of Medicine. New York City, N.Y.: Oxford University Press.

Commentary:  In 2013, we had a great time celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth.

March 14, 1939: Hand-painted MWDSC Flag; 1896: Official Opening of Sutro Baths, San Francisco

March 14, 1939: Hand-painted Metropolitan Water District of Southern California Flag. Recently the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California received a one-of-a-kind flag.  A conscientious California resident, Nan Wojcik, inherited this treasure when her mother died.  Now wanting to place it with its original agency, Ms. Wojcik called Metropolitan’s Board Secretary, Rosa Castro who passed it along to Metropolitan’s Archivist, David Keller.

The flag was promptly sent to David after a phone conversation and some correspondence. Ms. Wojcik explained that her father, Forest Emerson Wreede, worked as an electrician for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, but referred Metropolitan’s archivist along to her sister, Susan Paff for further details.

Ms. Paff clarified that her father worked for more than 35 years for LADWP as a line repair person or transformer electrician, beginning prior to WWII.  She also noted that her father worked as an electrician in the 1930s for several years around Boulder Dam, possibly at the company town of Boulder City.  Her best guess for how the flag came into the family’s possession is that someone gave it to her father during this Boulder Dam period.  Metropolitan welcomes such historical donations and is now in the process of further researching its provenance and where the flag will be placed.

Source:  MWDSC email, February 21, 2018.

March 14, 1896: On March 14, 1896, the Sutro Baths were opened to the public as the world’s largest indoor swimming pool establishment. The baths were built on the western side of San Francisco by wealthy entrepreneur and former mayor of San Francisco (1894–1896) Adolph Sutro. The structure filled a small beach inlet below the Cliff House, also owned by Adolph Sutro at the time. Both the Cliff House and the former baths site are now a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, operated by the United States National Park Service. The baths struggled for years, mostly due to the very high operating and maintenance costs. Shortly after closing, a fire in 1966 destroyed the building while it was in the process of being demolished. All that remains of the site are concrete walls, blocked off stairs and passageways, and a tunnel with a deep crevice in the middle. The cause of the fire was arson. Shortly afterwards, the developer left San Francisco and claimed insurance money.

The following statistics are from a 1912 article written by J. E. Van Hoosear of Pacific Gas and Electric. Materials used in the vast structure included 100,000 sq ft (9,300 m2) of glass, 600 tons of iron, 3,500,000 board feet (8,300 m3) of lumber, and 10,000 cu yd (7,600 m3) of concrete.

The baths were once serviced by a rail line, the Ferries and Cliff House Railroad, which ran along the cliffs of Lands End overlooking the Golden Gate. The route ran from the baths to a terminal at California Street and Central Avenue (now Presidio Avenue).

During high tides, water would flow directly into the pools from the nearby ocean, recycling the two million US gallons (7,600 m³) of water in about an hour. During low tides, a powerful turbine water pump, built inside a cave at sea level, could be switched on from a control room and could fill the tanks at a rate of 6,000 US gallons a minute (380 L/s), recycling all the water in five hours.