Tag Archives: drinking water

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 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 13, 1914: Death of John L. Leal

Dr. John L. Leal

March 13, 1914: Death (in Paterson, NJ) of John L. Leal, physician and water treatment expert who pioneered chlorine disinfection in the U.S. There are many unsung heroes who contributed significantly to public health at the turn of the 20th century. John L. Leal is one of them and after reading this, I think you will agree that he did more than most to save people’s lives.

John L. Leal was born in the small town of Andes, New York on May 5, 1858. His father, John Rose Leal was a physician who joined the 144th Regiment, New York Volunteers and fought in the Civil War. During the siege of Charleston, South Carolina, John Rose Leal contracted what was most likely a case of amoebic dysentery from contaminated drinking water. He suffered from the disease for more than 17 years before he finally died of it in 1882.

John L. Leal attended Princeton College and graduated in 1880. He went on to Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons finishing his medical education in 1883. He opened a medical practice in Paterson, New Jersey and went to work for the Paterson Board of Health where he remained until 1899. He left City employment and became the sanitary adviser to private water companies including the East Jersey Water Company and the Jersey City Water Supply Company. In 1888, he married Amy L. Arrowsmith and they had one son, Graham, later that year. So far, his life was well spent but not exemplary.

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 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. 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 1909 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 a large-scale basis or over any continuous time period.

But, there was a problem. The public feared chemicals in their food, medicines and water. Adulteration of food and medicines was rampant during this period, which was faithfully catalogued in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

“How could they know that the pale-blue milk that they bought around the corner was watered, and doctored with formaldehyde besides?. . .How could they find out that their tea and coffee, their sugar and flour, had been doctored; that their canned peas had been colored with copper salts, and their fruit jams with aniline dyes?”(1)

At any conference of water professionals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, strong language was used to oppose chemical disinfection. Even George W. Fuller early in his career was not supportive of chemical disinfectants.

1893, George Warren Fuller: “While chemicals have been of much aid in surgery by bringing about antisepsis and asepsis, it is very improbable that people would allow their drinking water to be drugged with chemicals, even with the view of removing dangerous bacteria–indeed, such a method might prove very dangerous in many cases.”(2)

1894, Thomas M. Drown: “…the idea itself of chemical disinfection is repellent.”(3)

1904, George C. Whipple: “Thus in St. Louis the popular prejudice against the use of alum in clarifying the water is said to be so intense that a local engineer has said ‘it is very doubtful if alum could be used, no matter how excellent the results which might be obtained.’. . .‘We don’t want to drink puckered water.’”(4)

1906, George C. Whipple: “The idea of adding poisonous chemicals [like chlorine] to water for the purpose of improving its quality for drinking purposes has generally been considered as illogical and unsafe. . .”(5)

1906, William P. Mason: “I very much question if the public at large would be willing to disinfect water to-day. We are scarcely driven that far yet.”(6)

1906, P.A. Maignen: “Among the so-called ‘disinfectants’ tried may be cited copper, chlorine and oxalic acid. . .Such poisonous materials should not be permitted to be used on water intended for public supplies.”(7)

Nonetheless, 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. Where he found the courage to follow the path of chemical disinfection when all of the experts railed against it is not known for certain. His father’s gruesome illness and death and the unnecessary deaths he personally observed as Health Officer for Paterson must have contributed to his decision.

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, 2012, marks the 104th anniversary of the first continuous use of chlorine on a water supply—the longest period of water disinfection anywhere in the world.

In a second trial, the court vindicated Leal’s decision. Afterwards, the use of chlorine spread like wildfire throughout the U.S. Typhoid fever death rates plummeted and children under one year of age stopped dying by the hundreds of thousands.

John L. Leal was not a physically imposing figure. Photographs of him show a man of average height and build with a kind face. Nothing in his appearance hinted at the steel spine and dogged courage that he possessed. One definition of the word hero reads: “a man of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his brave deeds and noble qualities.” These days, many people feel that the word hero has been overused in this country. I think that promoting a water treatment process that saves millions of lives qualifies Leal to be known as a Hero of Public Health.

Why doesn’t everyone know about Leal? Another man, George A. Johnson was wrongly given the credit for the idea of chlorinating the water supply for Jersey City. Johnson was able to get away with his charade, in part, because John L. Leal died on March 13, 1914, and Johnson lived for another 20 years.

Still not convinced? Read The Chlorine Revolution: Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives which was published in April 2013.(8)

Grave Monument for Dr. Leal


(1) Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle: With an Afterword by Emory Elliott. New York:Signet Classic, 1990, original copyright 1905, originally published in 1904.

(2) Fuller, George W. “Sand Filtration of Water, with Special Reference to Results Obtained, at Lawrence, Massachusetts.” In American Public Health Association, Public Health Papers and Reports. Vol. 20, Columbus, OH:APHA, 64-71. 1895.

(3) Drown, Thomas M. “The Electrical Purification of Water.” Journal NEWWA. 8 (1894): 183-7.

(4) Whipple, George C. Discussion of “Purification of Water for Domestic Use.” Transactions ASCE. 54:Part D (1905): 192-206.

(5) Whipple, George C. “Disinfection as a Means of Water Purification.” Proceedings AWWA. (1906): 266-80.

(6) Mason, William P. “Discussion.” Proceedings AWWA. (1906): 282-3.

(7) Maignen, P.A. “Discussion.” Proceedings AWWA. (1906): 285-6.

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


March 11, 1869: Akron Fire Impacts on Water Supply

Main Street, Akron, Ohio, 1875

March 11, 1869: Major fire in Akron, Ohio leads to early improvements in water service. The fire burned down all of the buildings between High and Main Streets. Soon after, the public demanded water reservoirs for fire safety. Citizens pooled their money to purchase large cisterns and in the early 1870s, eighteen cisterns were constructed throughout the city each holding 500 to 2,000 gallons. In 1880 M.S. Frost Consulting Engineers and a group of prominent local men negotiated a deal with the city to be the sole provider of water to the city. The company would construct a water system for Akron as long as the city would agree to pay $6,750 per year for water service to fight fires and to rent 150 fire hydrants that the company would install. In 1880 the M.S. Frost and Son sold the rights of the water deal to the Akron Water Works company headed by Frank Adams and George W. Crouse.

Commentary: Without doubt, the major reason to build centralized water systems in the 19th century was not to provide a water supply to a city. Pressurized water systems were needed to stop cities from burning to the ground.


March 10, 1909: Unique Baffled Covered Reservoir

March 10, 1909: Municipal Journal and Engineer article. Water Filtration and Sedimentation—Settling Reservoirs. “In a paper presented in January before the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (England), Mr. John Don reviewed the subject of water purification in a very comprehensive way; and the Institution has published an excellent abstract of the paper, from which we select the following, as of special interest to American Water Works Superintendents and Engineers.

Settling Reservoirs

It is usual in America to have three or four compartments arranged either in a rectangular form or in a crescent. From the raw-water basin the flow takes place over a dividing wall into the next, and so on. At the Paris water works of the Compagnie Generate, the settling tanks are so constructed as to induce continuous and progressive sedimentation. The process here is threefold. First the path of the water lies through a series of narrow troughs disposed in zigzag form, in which the heavier particles are thrown down. Following the troughs comes a sequence of larger compartments and finally decanting basins, and in both of these the alternating left to right and also up and down movements induce still further precipitation. The combined effect of these slow and regulated and tortuous movements is that the sedimentation is more rapid than if the water were left stationary. It is also conducted within a much less area and with far less depth than would be necessary if mere stagnation were depended upon to produce a like result.

Notable for its ingenious construction is the Sunridge Park covered reservoir, which is laid out in concentric channels. From the plan it will be seen that the water circulates first in one direction and ·then backwards in the next conduit inwards. There is a slight fall from the periphery to the center, where the outlet is placed.”

Reference: “Water Filtration and Sedimentation—Settling Reservoirs.” Municipal Journal and Engineer article 26:10(March 10, 1909): 408.

Commentary: Now THAT is what I call a baffled reservoir. No short-circuiting allowed here.