Tag Archives: cholera

November 6, 1893: Cholera Kills Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky’s Tomb

November 6, 1893: Death of Tchaikovsky. “On 6 November 1893, nine days after the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky died in Saint Petersburg, at the age of 53. The official cause of death was reported to be cholera, most probably contracted through drinking contaminated water several days earlier. This explanation was accepted by many biographers of the composer. However, even at the time of Tchaikovsky’s death, there were many questions about this diagnosis.

The timeline between Tchaikovsky’s drinking unboiled water and the emergence of symptoms was brought into question. So was the possibility of the composer’s procuring unboiled water in the midst of a cholera epidemic with strict health regulations in effect. Also, while cholera actually attacked all levels of Russian society, it was considered a disease of the lower classes. The resulting stigma from such a demise for as famous a personage as Tchaikovsky was considerable, to the point where its possibility was inconceivable for many people. The accuracy of the medical reports from the two physicians who had treated Tchaikovsky was questioned. The handling of Tchaikovsky’s corpse was also scrutinized as it was reportedly not in accordance with official regulations for victims of cholera.”

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October 27, 1850: Cholera in Sacramento, California

Memorial to Courageous Physicians who Died in the Epidemic

October 27, 1850Cholera in Sacramento, California. “Alas for Sacramento in 1850, cholera is a disease that thrives in conditions of urban filth. The bacterium can be transmitted from one host to another through unwashed hands or raw sewage. When raw sewage containing the bacteria finds its way into the public water supply, cholera spreads rapidly. Its symptoms include severe abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. The disease strikes without warning. In the course of a single day, cholera can be fatal to a previously healthy person. Perkins wrote on October 27, ‘Some have been taken who were to all appearances in good health and have died in a few hours.’ Likewise, on October 23, Lord noted in his journal, ‘A man walking down J Street last evening, dropped suddenly, and lived only long enough to be carried into the nearest door.’

The first death from cholera occurred on October 20. The number of cases rapidly multiplied over the next few weeks, radiating into the city from the commercial riverside district….Public health measures proved to be worse than ineffective. A city ordinance passed on October 21 ordered residents to burn their garbage or face a $500 fine. Lord wrote that the ‘filth is burned in the middle of the streets—old shoes and boots and clothes by the ton, and cart loads of bones, and raw hides, and putrid meat, and spoiled bacon—so that the end of the matter is worse than the beginning.’ By the end of the month, half of the population of the city had either succumbed to the disease or fled the city. By the end of the first week of November, it was 80 percent. ‘In this pestilential reign of terror and dismay the most dreadful abandonments of relatives and friends took place’….”

Reference:  Isenberg, Andrew C. Mining California:  An Ecological History. New York:Hill and Wang, 2005, p.66.

Commentary The Sacramento 1850 epidemic was one of the worst in U.S. history.

September 26, 1994: Tucson Shuts off CAP Supply; 1908: First Chlorine Use in US; 1855: Handle Put Back on Broad Street Pump

September 26, 1994: Tucson Shuts off Direct Delivery of Central Arizona Project Water Supply. Corrosive water destroying pipes in a major American city preceded the events in Flint, Michigan by over two decades. On November 4, 1992, the water department for Tucson, Arizona, (Tucson Water or TW) began delivery of a new water supply: treated surface water from the Central Arizona Project (CAP)—primarily Colorado River water. Putting treated CAP water into the TW distribution system caused a corrosion problem that resulted in colored water (e.g., rusty, red, orange, yellow and brown) flowing from customer taps. Tucson’s introduction of CAP water is a story of mistakes committed at all levels of the utility and by the Tucson City Council.

Technical mistakes included not preparing the distribution system to receive a more complex surface water supply. TW was a groundwater utility that relied on about 200 wells distributed throughout the system. Recognizing their lack of experience with treating surface water, they hired treatment plant operators from other utilities to run the new $80 million leading-edge-technology treatment plant. Unfortunately, the same level of focus and preparation was not applied to the aging distribution system, which received, literally overnight, a chloraminated supply to half its customers from a single point of entry.

One of the biggest mistakes was not testing the impact of treated CAP water on corroded galvanized steel pipes. There were about 200 miles of this 2-inch substandard pipe in the system. When treated CAP water hit these pipes, the iron corrosion deposits inside the pipes were stripped away causing colored water, taste and odor problems, and damage to home plumbing, appliances and property due to flooding.

There was a rush to deliver CAP water and to hold down costs to the detriment of needed studies, which would have shown that raising the treated water pH for corrosion control was the proper approach.

Also high on the list of pre-delivery problems was a lack of political will to replace the substandard galvanized and cast iron street mains. The presence of these substandard pipes made the TW distribution system ripe for a catastrophic corrosion problem due to unsound corrosion control practices.

Delivery of CAP water was terminated on September 26, 1994, because of the inability of TW to control the colored water problem and the resulting political uproar. The $80 million treatment plant was shut down and has not been used since.

After a series of management resignations and firings over several years, Tucson hired David Modeer as the Director of TW. Modeer and his management team put the utility on the road to recovery. Along with a carefully planned technical program to select the correct corrosion treatment and deal with the taste and odor problems, an innovative public information campaign that also included a public apology for the CAP debacle, began to restore the credibility of TW. Customers were invited to actively participate in determining the future use, treatment and quality of CAP water via such methods as consumer preference research and participation in an extensive bottled water program.

Dedication of CAVSARP/Clearwater Project, 5/3/01

After the voters defeated a proposition in 1999 that would have severely limited the ability to use CAP water in the future, TW completed an aquifer storage and recovery project in the nearby Avra Valley. The Central Avra Valley Storage and Recovery Project (CAVSARP) allowed the utility to fully use its CAP allotment and serve a recovered groundwater/recharged CAP water mix that was accepted by TW customers. Tucson Water turned around a disaster into a singular success. Because of its ability to conjunctively use CAP water and groundwater, Tucson is now one of the more drought-resistant communities in the Southwest.

Commentary: Marie Pearthree and I are writing a book about what happened in Tucson before, during and after the corrosion problem doomed their new water supply. A wealth of material has revealed previously unknown information related to TW’s problems. The results of these efforts are much-needed lessons for water utilities on how to avoid TW’s mistakes and how to successfully introduce a new water supply. As of this date in 2017, we are finishing up the research and beginning to write some of the chapters. It is hard to predict when we will complete the book, but we will be giving papers on what we have found during our research at several venues in 2018. Watch this space for presentation times, dates and locations.

Building on the right housed the chloride of lime feed facility at Boonton Reservoir

September 26, 1908:  106th anniversary of the first day of operation of the chlorination facility at Boonton Reservoir for Jersey City, NJ.  This was the first continuous use of chlorine in the U.S. for drinking water disinfection.

In the field of water supply, there were big moves afoot in the state of New Jersey at the turn of the 20th century. Jersey City had suffered with a contaminated water supply for decades causing tens of thousands of deaths from typhoid fever and diarrheal diseases. In 1899, the City contracted with the Jersey City Water Supply Company to build a dam on the Rockaway River and provide a new water supply. The dam created Boonton Reservoir, which had a storage capacity of over seven billion gallons. One of the company’s employees, Dr. John L. Leal, would have an enormous impact on this water supply and the history of water treatment. Leal was a physician, public health professional and water quality expert. Leal’s job with the company was to remove sources of contamination in the Rockaway River watershed above the reservoir. Water from the project was served to the City beginning on May 23, 1904.

When it came time for Jersey City to pay the company for the new water supply, they balked. The price tag was steep—over $175 million in current dollars. Using newly developed bacteriological methods, consultants for the City claimed that the water was not “pure and wholesome,” and they filed suit against the company to get a reduced purchase price. The trial that resulted pitted the water quality experts of the day against one another in a battle of expert witnesses.

The opinion of the judge was published on May 1, 1909. In that opinion, Vice Chancellor Frederic W. Stevens said that Boonton Reservoir did a good job on average of reducing the bacteria concentrations in the water provided. However, he noted that two to three times per year, especially after intense rainstorms, the reservoir short-circuited and relatively high bacteria levels resulted.

Rather than build expensive sewers that would deal with only part of the bacteria contamination problem (an early recognition of non-point source pollution) Leal and the company attorney argued to install “other plans or devices” that would do a better job. The judge agreed and gave them a little over three months to prove their idea. Leal had decided in May 1908 that it was time to add a chemical disinfectant to drinking water. He was all too familiar with the suffering and death caused by typhoid fever and diarrheal diseases. He knew of some successful instances of using forms of chlorine in Europe, but nothing had been attempted in the U.S. on such a large-scale basis.

Leal was convinced that adding a disinfectant to the Jersey City water supply was the best course. He had done laboratory studies that convinced him that a fraction of a ppm of chlorine would kill disease-causing bacteria. In the face of the certain disapproval of his peers and possible condemnation by the public, he moved forward.

However, no chlorine feed system treating 40 million gallons per day had ever been designed or built and if the feed system failed to operate reliably, all of the courage of his convictions would not have amounted to much. He needed the best engineer in the country to do the work. He needed George Warren Fuller. In 1908, Fuller was famous for his work in filtration. He had designed an aluminum sulfate feed system treating 30 million gallons per day for the Little Falls treatment plant. On July 19, 1908, Leal left his attorney’s office in Jersey City and took the ferry to Manhattan. In Fuller’s office at 170 Broadway, he hired the famous engineer (undoubtedly on the basis of a handshake) and told him that the bad news was that he needed the work done in a little over three months.

Ninety-nine days later, the chlorine feed system was built and operational. Calcium hypochlorite (known then as chloride of lime or bleaching powder) was made into a concentrated solution, diluted with water and fed through a calibrated orifice to the water before it traveled by gravity to Jersey City. The feed system worked flawlessly from day one and continued to operate successfully for all of the following days. Liquid chlorine eventually replaced chloride of lime, but September 26, 2013, marks the 105th anniversary of the first continuous use of chlorine on a water supply—the longest period of water disinfection anywhere in the world.

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

Broadwick [formerly, Broad] Street showing the John Snow memorial and public house.

September 26, 1855:  The St. James Board of Commissioners of Paving voted 10 to 2 to reopen the Broad Street pump at the urging of local residents.  Dr. John Snow had prevailed upon them a year earlier to remove the pump handle after he presented his evidence that cholera deaths were geographically clustered around the well site.

Reference: Vinten-Johansen, Peter, Howard Brody, Nigel Paneth, Stephen Rachman and Michael Rip. Cholera, Chloroform, and the Science of Medicine. New York:Oxford University, 2003, 310.

September 8, 1854: Removal of Broad Street Pump Handle; 1900: Galveston Devastated by Hurricane of the Century

Dr. John Snow

September 8, 1854:  On this day, the pump handle was actually removed from the Broad Street pump.  History does not record who actually took the handle off, but we know it was not Dr. John Snow.  After all, the removal of the pump handle was the job of the St. James Board of Commissioners of Paving.  Incredibly, public protests resulted in the replacement of the pump handle on September 26, 1855.  The Broad Street well was not permanently taken out of service until the cholera epidemic of 1866.

Reference:  Vinten-Johansen, Peter, Howard Brody, Nigel Paneth, Stephen Rachman and Michael Rip. Cholera, Chloroform, and the Science of Medicine. New York:Oxford University, 2003, 292-4, 310, 316-317.

Reconstruction of the 1900 Hurricane making landfall at Galveston

September 8, 1900: On this date, a Category Four hurricane struck Galveston, Texas, and destroyed, among other things, the drinking water system for the city.  The storm surge killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people, making it the deadliest natural disaster ever to hit the United States. Basic water service was not restored until September 12, 1900.

Commentary: If you ever visit Galveston, go to the museum devoted to the hurricane. It is hard to comprehend the devastation and loss of life caused by this natural disaster.

September 7, 1854: Dr. John Snow Convinces Board to Remove Pump Handle

Broadwick [formerly, Broad] Street showing the John Snow memorial and public house.

September 7, 1854:  The St. James Board of Governors and Directors of the Poor was convinced by Dr. John Snow that the Broad Street pump was the source of a cholera epidemic in a London neighborhood.  The Board ordered the removal of the pump handle preventing a continuation of the epidemic.  Incredibly, public protests resulted in the replacement of the pump handle on September 26, 1855.  The Broad Street well was not permanently taken out of service until the cholera epidemic of 1866.

Reference:  Vinten-Johansen, Peter, Howard Brody, Nigel Paneth, Stephen Rachman and Michael Rip. Cholera, Chloroform, and the Science of Medicine. New York:Oxford University, 2003, 292-4, 310, 316-317.

August 7, 1837: Death of Chester Averill

Chester Averill

August 7, 1837: Death of Chester Averill who was 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.

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 http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~quarantine/dotyobit.htm.

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.