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McGuire is an environmental engineer and writer. He has worked in the drinking water community for over 40 yrs

July 21, 1909: Filters for Providence, RI

July 21, 1909: Municipal Journal and Engineer article. Water Filters of Providence, R.I. “Final construction is just about being completed on the ten filter beds which constitute the plant designed some years ago for the purification of the water supply of Providence, R.I. The first contract was dated July 15, 1902, and called for six slow sand filters each approximately one acre in effective area; a regulating house containing the measuring and controlling apparatus; a pumping station, and a laboratory building. When the plans for these filters were under consideration the subject of covering the beds was considered at some length. In view of the fact that at Lawrence, Mass., 50 miles further north, little trouble had been experienced with snow and ice or with any serious interruption of bacterial efficiency on account of cold, and inasmuch as a considerable saving in cost could he made by omitting the covers the Commissioner of Public Works decided to adopt open filter beds.

Part of the first six beds was put in operation in the summer of 1904 and a second contract was let on February 13, 1905 calling for another regulating house and two additional beds. The winter of 1905-06 was particularly severe in New England and the formation of ice on the water over the filter beds then in service made the cleaning of them very difficult and at times almost impossible. Ice fourteen inches thick formed over the filters, and not only the full force of water works employees but a number from the sewer department also were utilized, the force at times reaching 150 men; but even with these it was impossible to remove the ice as fast as it formed. In consequence the beds had to be operated with much greater loss of head than had been intended. The same difficulty was found in the winter of 1906-07 and at times it was found necessary to draw water directly from the river to supply the demand.

This experience convinced those in charge that it would conduce not only to greater efficiency of filtration in winter time, but to greater economy also, to have the filters covered. Accordingly on June 11, 1906, a contract was let to the Pettaconset Construction Company of Providence, which firm also obtained the two previous contracts for the filters, for placing covers over the beds then under construction, and also over the six already completed; also to construct two more covered beds, making ten beds in all.”

Commentary: Note the highlighted section. If the filters are not used because the cold weather causes the water to freeze, then they are not much good as a barrier to disease. In The Chlorine Revolution, I noted that the typhoid fever rate was not much reduced after slow sand filtration was introduced into Lawrence, MA. Perhaps they were drawing raw water out of the Merrimac River during the winter and not telling anyone.

July 20, 1982: Boil Water Order in Jersey City

July 20, 1982: New York Times headline: Drinking Water in Jersey City Must Still Be Boiled. “The requirement that the 300,000 customers of the Jersey City Water Department boil all of their drinking water for five minutes remained in effect today after state officials detected possible excessive bacteria in the water, city officials said. The reason for the possible contamination was not clear because the water supply is filtered and chlorinated (since 1908). It appeared to be a problem with a broken water main that introduced contaminated water into parts of the distribution system.”

Commentary: Notice the date. Thirty-one years later as of 2013, Jersey City just lifted a boil water order that was caused by the same problem—a broken water main. Aging infrastructure has its penalties.

July 19, 1911: Home-Made Sanitary Drinking Cup and New York’s Filtration Plant and Park

July 19, 1911: Municipal Journal articles.

Home-Made Sanitary Drinking Cup. “With a view to eliminating the dangers of infection from the use of public drinking cups, a set of “plans and specifications” for the manufacture of a sanitary drinking vessel has been prepared. All that is necessary is a piece of paper, seven inches square, which, if folded properly, will form a drinking cup that will be sufficiently sanitary for any one. The diagram shows the method of folding the paper so as to make the cup ready for immediate use. There are no sharp edges of paper at the edge of the cup, and hence no danger of cutting the lips. A cup made from an ordinary grade of book paper will keep its shape and hold water for five or ten minutes. If a hard manila wrapping paper is used the cup will be much more- durable. A convenient size cup for general use is made of a piece of paper seven inches square.

Pupils of the fourth grade at the Grant School, Trenton, N. J., did some excellent work in making paper drinking cups during the last week of the school session, and are making them at their homes for daily use at public drinking fountains. Agitation concerning the uncleanliness of public drinking cups has impressed these children with the advantage of using individual cups. It is the intention of Supervisor William R. Ward, of the manual training class, to introduce the making of cups as a regular feature in the lower grades of all the schools next September. The cups are made of manila paper, folded in such a manner that they keep their shape without any pasting, and can be conveniently carried in pockets of coats or trousers.”

Commentary: The national movement to end the common cup and the disease risks associated with its use reached down into the schools. There were numerous grass-roots efforts to impress on everyone just how dangerous it was to use a common cup. As has been noted in this blog before, individual states banned the common cup and in 1912, the common cup was banned by federal regulation on interstate modes of transportation. By the way, if you want to try the home-made cup, start out with very clean paper.

New York’s Filtration Plant and Park. “New York, N. Y.-The illustration is a sketch of the Jerome Park reservoir, for which Commissioner Thompson has been allowed an appropriation of $8,690,000 showing how it will look when half of it is roofed over and a park laid out on top of it. It is estimated that it will take about four years to complete the work, by which time the reservoir park will be made accessible by one of the new transit lines. The filter will be of the mechanical type and will have a capacity of 400,000,000 gallons a day.”

Commentary: 1911? What ever happened to the filtration plant planned for the Croton water supply? Plans for it were shelved when chlorination appeared to solve many of the bacteriological problems with this supply. Now, 100+ years later, filtration of this water supply has become a reality. The modern plant is now operational.

July 18, 1911: Death by Cholera in the U.S.; 1908: Irrigating the Nile Valley

Quarantine in NYC Harbor in 1879

July 18, 1911: Cholera Kills Boy; Eighth Death Here. New York Times Headline. “The sixth death from cholera since the arrival in this port from Naples of the steamship Moltke, thirteen days ago, occurred yesterday at Swineburne Island. The victim was Francesco Frando 14 years old.

Dr. A.H. Doty, the Health Officer for the Port of New York stated, “The great thing in fighting cholera is to isolate each case as soon as it is suspected, and, secondly, to take care that there is no local infection, like the contamination of the water supply, in the place where the suspected cases are isolated. That is why I detained all the passengers of the Moltke, although at the time there were no absolute cases of cholera among them. I let the crew take the vessel back to Europe, but refused to allow any of them to come ashore.”

Alvah H. Doty

Commentary: Quarantine was the best weapon against cholera in the late 19th and early 20th century. Obviously, chlorination of drinking water had not taken hold across the U.S. by 1911. A few short years later and it would be used as treatment in the majority of U.S. municipal water supplies. Doty was an interesting historical character. His obituary can be found at

Update July 18, 2017: Note the care and attention given to eight deaths from cholera at the New York port of entry near the turn of the 20th century. Today, the world shrugs off the news that there have been 300,000 cases of cholera in Yemen and 10,000 deaths from cholera in Haiti. What has happened to our humanity?

Nile River Irrigation

July 18, 1908: Engineering Record article. The Nile Irrigation Question. “The Nile Valley, from the great lakes of Central Africa on the south to the Mediterranean Sea on the north, is throughout, if watered, an essentially cotton country, and having in view the threatened shortage in the world’s future supply of one of its great necessities, and the large share of America in its provision in the past, it will be interesting to note what has been done and is being proposed in Egypt and the Sudan by means of irrigation to supplement the present supply of cotton and to meet the growing demand. In Egypt, at present, nearly all other cultivation is gradually yielding to that of cotton, notwithstanding the greater amount of hard work which the latter requires among a race to which it is by no means congenial.

The Nile system consists of the White Nile, which originates in the larger group of Central African lakes, the Victoria Nyanza, the Choga, the Albert Edward and the Albert Nyanza; and the Blue Nile, which is the largest source of supply, draining the mountains of Abyssinia. These two meet at Khartoum, the river thence flowing to the north being the Nile proper. It is on the latter that the principal conservation works have been and are now being erected, while on the White and Blue Niles, especially on the former, the work of the future will no doubt be chiefly concentrated.

As upper and lower Egypt, most of which is practically rainless, are dependent on the branches for their water, the Nile proper being merely a channel for its conveyance, and as much of the water is lost by spills and evaporation on the White Nile, it is a fortunate circumstance that Great Britain, with its large Indian irrigation experience, has even a greater control over the Sudan and the upper country through which the river flows than over Egypt itself. Hence not only will the former be benefited by direct irrigation on now unprofitable lands, but the latter will also receive more water by works undertaken under British initiation and financial help, on the White Nile.”

Commentary: Note the reference to “lazy” Egyptian farmers and how wonderful it was that British innovation was helping to save their less fortunate and inferior brethren. Racism and colonialism were dominant themes in some engineering writings from this period.

July 17, 1913: Water Purification at Erie, PA

Erie Water Works

July 17, 1913: Municipal Journal article. Water Purification at Erie. “The year 1912 was the second for the use of hypochlorite by the water works commissioners, of Erie, Pa., and they report that it has proved beyond a doubt the value of this treatment as a water purifier. “The treated water has at all times been free from pathogenic germs and perfectly safe to be used for drinking purposes.” From January 1 to June 9 7 pounds of hypochlorite was applied to the million gallons of water pumped. The amount was increased to 8 pounds from June 9 to October 10, after which it was again reduced to 7 pounds. The number of bacteria per c. c. in the water immediately after treatment averaged as follows for each of the twelve months: 26, 37, 10, 20, 36. 56, 26, 26, 26, 33, 30 and 24. It was found that the number of bacteria generally increased in the mains, and water as drawn from the taps contained an average of 24 bacteria in February and 554 in June, these being the minimum and maximum monthly averages. It is extremely probable that the additional bacteria were perfectly harmless varieties. The cost of operating and maintaining the sterilization plant for the year was approximately 79 cents per million gallons of water pumped. The average daily pumpage for the year was 15,679,132 gallons.

On July 25, 1912. a contract was let by the commissioners for a pumping station, boilers, and 24-million gallon rapid sand filter plant, the contract price of which was $446,380. Part of this contract is completed, and the whole is expected to be finished by next spring.”

Commentary: Erie was one of the many cities who jumped on the chlorination bandwagon and then realized that they also need to filter their water to fully protect their customers.

July 16, 1914: Acquisition of the East Jersey Water Company

Wanaque Reservoir

July 16, 1914: Municipal Journal article. To Decide on Joining Water Supplies. “Trenton, N. J. In a resolution the State Water Supply Commission requested that Newark and the eight other municipalities which have made application for a joint water supply signify within sixty days whether they favor the acquisition of the properties of the East Jersey Water Company or the alternative plan of developing the watershed of the Wanaque River. The commission will hold a final conference with representatives from the nine interested municipalities at the city hall, Paterson, in September. The municipalities included are Newark, Paterson, Elizabeth, Montclair, East Orange, Totowa, Glen Ridge, Nutley and Passaic. The action of the commission was the outcome of a resolution recently adopted by the Board of Works of Newark urging that action be taken to provide an additional water supply for that city without further delay. It is understood that Newark is opposed to the purchase of the East Jersey Water Company plant, but is more than willing that the Wanaque watershed be constructed.

It is further said that the attitude of the State commission is that Newark’s need for more water is imperative and that should the other municipalities fail to come to some agreement by September 11, the State should enter into a contract with Newark and proceed with the Wanaque development. The resolutions adopted by the state commission review at length the negotiations between that body and the nine municipalities, including the authorization of the appraisal of the plant of the East Jersey Water Company.”

Commentary: Ultimately, the Wanaque water supply was developed by Newark and the East Jersey Water Company was rolled up with other private water companies into a regional water agency that became known as the Passaic Valley Water Commission. The Commission is still operational today. The cornerstone of the Commission water supply is the treatment plant built on the original site of George Warren Fuller’s revolutionary mechanical filtration plant at Little Falls, New Jersey.

July 15, 1916: Death of Elie Metchnikoff

July 15, 1916: Death of Elie Metchnikoff, Nobel Prize winner. On May 16, 1845, [also listed as May 15] Elie Metchnikoff was born in a village near Kharkoff, Russia (about 350 miles northeast of Odessa in what is now the country of Ukraine). He studied natural sciences at the University of Kharkoff graduating after only two years. He attended a number of universities in Europe after his degree and finished his doctorate at the University of St. Petersburg. At the incredibly young age of 25, he was appointed Titular Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at the University of Odessa. In 1884, he left Odessa for Italy after the assassination of Czar Alexander II.

Some of his earliest research was in the field of embryology where he connected structures in higher animals to similar structures in more primitive animals. After his move to Italy, he focused more on the study of disease.

Metchnikoff was a volatile personality who survived two suicide attempts. After his first wife died in 1873, he attempted to take his own life with an overdose of morphine. In 1880, Elie Metchnikoff’s second wife contracted a severe case of typhoid fever but survived. In despair, Metchnikoff injected himself with infected material causing relapsing fever. Some have attempted to explain his actions as an experiment to see if the disease could be transmitted by blood. He became very ill but survived.

In his work, Elie Metchnikoff used the microscope extensively. However, his eyesight was poor from birth and he further damaged his eyesight in his early years of study due to over exertion. As a result, he was unable to use a microscope during the period 1867 to 1882. Upon resuming his microscopic studies, Metchnikoff, like other scientists of his day, was interested in viewing microbes and microscopic structures of simple animals under high magnification. However, his interest led him to the development of a description of what was eating the microbes.

In 1882 in a laboratory set up in a drawing room in Messina, Italy, he observed the mobile cells in a transparent starfish larva. He noticed that when he introduced a thorn into the larva, specialized cells in the larva attacked the foreign invader. His later studies showed that specialized cells would attack anything foreign introduced under the dermis of the starfish and other animals. He also observed that white blood cells attacked, killed and consumed bacteria and other foreign invaders of the human body. The specialized cells were labeled phagocytes and the process phagocytosis. In humans, this action was part of the inflammation process caused by white blood cells resulting from a body’s defense against infection. He first published his findings in 1883. Metchnikoff’s discovery and subsequent fame generated a number of conflicts with his colleagues, many of which he initiated.

In 1888, Metchnikoff left Russia and all of the conflicts and problems that plagued him there and went to work for the world’s foremost bacteriologist, Louis Pasteur. He worked at the Pasteur Institute until he died in 1916. His publication of Lectures on the Comparative Pathology of Inflammation in 1891 and its English translation in 1893 gained him world-wide acclaim. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1908 which he shared with Paul Ehrlich for his work in phagocytosis.

Metchnikoff’s discovery has been recognized as the first demonstration of a human body’s protective process against disease. His work provided part of the foundation of the general field of immunology. During the 1880s others were studying the body’s ability to ward off disease. Metchnikoff’s theory while brilliant did not explain how a person retained the ability to be exposed to a disease without any effect subsequent to an initial infection. Behring’s work on the humoralist theory of immunity appeared to be in direct conflict with Metchnikoff’s but subsequent research would show that they were both part of a larger understanding of immunity. Behring was responsible for discovering the diphtheria anti-toxin and promoting its widespread use.

In his well-known book on public health, which was published in 1902, William T. Sedgwick explored the bodies defenses against microorganisms and noted Elie Metchnikoff’s theory of immunity. “…starting with the [now] well-known fact that the white blood-cells are eating –cells (or phagocytes) and readily devour yeast-cells, bacteria-cells, etc., [Metchnikoff] made elaborate and important investigations tending to show that…the battle is really between the white blood-cells and the microbes…” Sedgwick was interested in the evolving field of immunology because of his beliefs in his theory of vital resistance.

Metchnikoff was married twice. His first marriage to Ludmilla Federovitch lasted only four years (1869 to 1873). She died of tuberculosis (or typhoid fever) in Madeira. He married Olga Belokopitova in 1875 and she stayed with him for the rest of his life. She was devoted to him and his research and collaborated with him on his work.

Metchnikoff died on July 15, 1916 at the age of 71.

Decades later, in the early 1980s, two research teams showed definitively that white blood cells (phagocytic leucocytes) kill microbiological invaders of the human body through a process involving the production of hypochlorous acid and chloramines at the cellular level. Both of these chemicals are toxic to invading organisms. Online videos demonstrating the process of phagocytosis are helpful in understanding the mechanisms. A figure and the accompanying text in a recently published book on immunology illustrate the reaction mechanisms that produce hypochlorous acid and chloramines.

John L. Leal would have had an easier time convincing the New Jersey Chancery Court that adding chlorine to drinking water was an excellent tool for killing the typhoid bacillus if he had known that cells in the human body use the same chemical as part of an innate mechanism for defense against pathogens. The information would also have been of great help to engineers and city leaders who later added chlorine and chloramines to drinking water in the face of continuing public chemophobia.

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