Tag Archives: public health

February 20, 1862: Willie Lincoln Dies of Typhoid

February 20, 1862: President Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln were grief stricken when their eleven-year-old son, Willie, died from typhoid fever, which may have been due to polluted drinking water delivered to the White House. His full name was William Wallace Lincoln but his parents called him Willie.

“Willie and his younger brother Tad were considered “notorious hellions” during the period they lived in Springfield. They’re recorded by Abraham’s law partner William Herndon for turning their law office upside down; pulling the books off the shelves while their father appeared oblivious to their behavior.

Upon their father’s election as President both Willie and Tad moved into the White House and it became their new playground. At the request of Mrs. Lincoln, Julia Taft brought her younger brothers, 12-year-old “Bud” and 8-year-old “Holly” to the White House and they became playmates of Willie and Tad.

Willie and Tad both became ill in early 1862, and although Tad recovered, Willie’s condition fluctuated from day to day. The most likely cause of the illness was typhoid fever, which was usually contracted by consumption of fecally contaminated food/water. The White House drew its water from the Potomac River, along which thousands of soldiers and horses were camped. Gradually Willie weakened, and both parents spent much time at his bedside. Finally, on Thursday, February 20, 1862, at 5:00 p.m., Willie died. Abraham said, ‘My poor boy. He was too good for this earth. God has called him home. I know that he is much better off in heaven, but then we loved him so. It is hard, hard to have him die!’”

Willie was only 11 years old when he died.

Commentary:  Typhoid fever caused by contaminated water killed by the hundreds of thousands every year. The suffering of the parents of children was great and avoidable. It would take Louis Pasteur, the germ theory of disease, Dr. John Snow, public health professionals and the sanitary engineers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to eventually break the death spiral of sewage contaminated drinking water.

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February 18, 1915: Passaic Valley Sewer Construction

February 18, 1915:  Municipal Journal article. Passaic Valley Sewer. “Methods Employed by Contractors on Section from Bayonne to Robbins Reef Outlet-Sinking One Hundred Foot Shaft in New York Bay-Plans for Outlets. That section (No.2) of the Passaic valley sewer from the contract of the New York and New Jersey Construction Co., described in the issue of January 21, to the terminal chamber at Robbins reef is being built by the O’Rourke Engineering Construction Co., 17 Battery Place, N. Y. This contract comprises 15,000 feet of 12-foot concrete-lined circular tube, running about 80 feet below sea level from Bayonne to the reef. At the present time about 3,300 feet of this tunnel is “rough cut” and is now being trimmed down to the proper cross-section. The shaft at Bayonne, known as Jersey City shaft No. 2, has been sunk and work is proceeding on another shaft which is being built for construction purposes only in New York bay about 4,000 feet from the reef. Work on the terminal chamber itself will probably not begin until late in the summer.

From Jersey City shaft No. 2, the tunnel back to the 100-foot level heading of the New York and New Jersey Construction Co. has been driven back 1,675 feet-as far as is embraced in this contract. In the other direction, that is, toward New York bay, the tube has been driven about 1,370 feet. At this point the rock ran out and mud and gravel were encountered, necessitating the temporary abandonment of the work at this point. At present, work is still at a standstill, and there is a likelihood that it will be necessary to use compressed air for the remainder of the tunnel to the reef. Borings are now being made to further determine the nature of the ground before proceeding with the work.

Reference: “Passaic Valley Sewer.” 1915. Municipal Journal. 38:7(February 18, 1915): 213.

February 16, 1974: Chlorine Shortage

February 16, 1974:  New York Times headline– Chlorine Shortage: Threat to Drinking Water. “LINCOLN, Neb.-The nation faces a threat to its safe drinking water that could grow into a serious crisis it .steps are not taken soon to head it off. The problem traces back to the chlorine shortage that has been building since early 1973.”

Wilmington Star-News Headline-Chlorine Shortage May Affect Cities. “An Environmental Protection Agency official said Tuesday some municipalities will be hit this year by a shortage of chlorine to purify drinking wager, but that the supply should improve in 1975. Deputy Administrator John T. Rhett urged approval of legislation giving the government standby authority to impose a mandatory allocation system on the industry ‘to cope with serious shortage situations if such should develop during 1974.’

Rhett told a Senate Commerce subcommittee that chlorine was forecast ‘to be in short supply throughout most of 1974 if current economic conditions continue.’…The manager of the Denver Water Department said he has had difficulty obtaining a adequate supply of chlorine and warned that the health of ‘literally millions of Americans is threatened unless immediate action is taken’ on a mandatory allocation bill.”

February 15, 1917: Sewer Pipe Failures

Vitrified clay pipe (15-inch diameter) crushed by improper backfill conditions

February 15, 1917:  Municipal Journal editorial. Sewer Pipe Failures. “There is probably no type of structure or kind of material that was not at some time figured in a more or less complete failure. In most cases such failure is due to carelessness or ignorance in the use of the material and not to the fault of the material as such. Concrete bridges have failed, so have steel and wooden ones; yet each properly used has given most satisfactory service in hundreds of cases to one in which it has failed.

The same comments apply to the failures of sewer pipe described in this issue. Thousands of miles of vitrified pipe and hundreds of miles of cement pipe (the latter having come much more recently into general use) have given and are giving satisfaction in the sewerage systems of this and other countries. That there have been failures is only a repetition of the history of all materials. But it is desirable to occasionally call attention to such failures as a caution against careless or ignorant use of the materials, or to enlist all those interested in a study of the cause of the failure.

In the case of the vitrified pipe it appears from the illustration, that the pipe was laid close to the surface of a street carrying heavy traffic (assumed from the fact that the street was paved with stone block), that the reconstructed base over the trench failed to support the load, which was thereupon transmitted to the pipe.

In the case of the cement pipe, the reason is not so apparent; but it would seem probable that that advanced by the engineer is correct-that the pipe was sufficiently porous to permit ground water to pass through it, and that in doing so it dissolved certain constituents of the cement (or possibly of the sand or broken stone used as aggregate). It is certainly desirable that the cause be ascertained in order that the manufacturers of cement pipe may avoid its future occurrence.

Reference:  “Sewer Pipe Failures.” 1917. Municipal Journal 42:7(February 15, 1917): 237.

February 13, 1913: Cleveland Sewage Treatment

February 13, 1913:  Engineering News article. Sewage Disposal Investigations at Cleveland. By R. Winthrop Pratt. “SYNOPSIS-Preparatory to the design of sewage-treatment works for Cleveland, Ohio, a series of tests is being made of various methods of treating the sewage. The causes leading up to the decision to treat the sewage, and to make the tests before building the proposed works are outlined and then the testing station is described. The station includes grit chambers, screens and tanks for preliminary treatment, rapid filters or scrubbers, sprinkling filter, auxiliary settling tanks, and a disinfection plant for final treatment; tanks for dilution studies; sludge digestion tanks and sludge-drying beds, and an office and laboratory….

On July 25, 1905, the city appointed a commission of experts, consisting of Rudolph Hering, George H. Benzenberg and Desmond FitzGerald to study the general question of improved water-supply and sewerage for the city. This commission, about six months later, submitted a report in which was recommended:

(1) The extension of the water-works tunnel to a point about four miles from the shore.

(2) The construction of an intercepting sewer system to collect the sewage from the entire city and discharge the same into Lake Erie, at a point about 10 miles east of the Cuyahoga River. This intercepting sewer was to be designed to carry twice the dry-weather flow from one million people, on the basis of 200 gal. per capita, or a total of 400 gal. per capita per day. This plan involved several overflows into the lake and river to take care of the discharge in excess of the above amount.

(3) The construction of a river flushing tunnel and pumping equipment for the purpose of pumping clean lake water into the river above all local pollution, was recommended by two members of the commission.”

Reference:  Engineering News 1913. 69:7(February 13, 1913): 287.

February 12, 1914: Detroit Sewer Gas Explosion and Front Royal Water Supply

February 12, 1914:  Municipal Journal article. Damaging Sewer Gas Explosion. “Detroit. Mich.-An explosion of gas in the 18th street sewer has sent manhole covers flying skyward, torn up pavements, shattered windows, and wrecked outbuildings in the western part of the city. The district affected covered a dozen or more blocks. No one was seriously injured, but there were scores of narrow escapes from death as the heavy pieces of iron and paving blocks fell back to the ground. Damage to pavements is estimated at $25,000, while the loss to private property probably will exceed that amount.”

February 12, 1914:  Municipal Journal article. State Board Commends Water System. Front Royal, Va.-Officers of the State Board of Health who have just made an inspection of the new water supply of Front Royal, expressed high commendation of the system in a statement recently issued. The valley town, they declare, now has one of the best water supplies of the state and can guarantee to all visitors absolute freedom from water borne diseases. Front Royal has proceeded to install its new water supply with very creditable foresight. The town is almost ideally situated for good health and now is in a pos1t10n to protect its water beyond possible contamination. The system just installed includes a coagulation basin, gravity mechanical filters, storage basins for the filtered water, and as an extra precaution, apparatus for sterilizing the water before it is turned into the mains. The work is of concrete with the most modern and up-to-date appliances and the total cost, $17,000 was borne by the town without a bond issue. Since the first of the year the people have been getting a supply of clear, sparkling and pure water of the highest quality. The capacity of the plant is 1,000,000 gallons per day, or more than twice as much as the town now uses.

Reference:  Municipal Journal 1914. 36:7(February 12, 1914): 213.

February 11, 1915: Detroit Metering and Burst NYC Water Main

Vintage Bronze 1909 Water Meter

February 11, 1915: Municipal Journal article. Metering in Detroit. Detroit, Mich.-“Superintendent Theodore A. Leisen and the water board are asking for about $561,000 to complete the installation of meters. About 21,000 are now in service and about 100,000 are needed altogether. The water officials contend that the cost and maintenance of the system fully metered would be less than at present. The inspection cost would increase, admits Mr. Leisen, and the revenue would not increase-but the pumpage would be materially decreased, affecting a saving in coal and the danger of immediate need of new sources of supply would be put off. The present consumption is 170 gallons per capita and Mr. Leisen says that 50 gallons of this is avoidable waste. A new chlorine purifying plant is to be installed.”

February 11, 1915: Municipal Journal article. Burst Main Floods New York Theatre Section. New York, N. Y.-“The bursting of a 30-inch main near the heart of the theatre district broke up the pavement in several blocks, put many passers-by in danger and flooded the basements of all the buildings in the area. The lights were put out and the residents of the section were forced to vacate the houses by the police because of danger of undermining. Traffic was suspended. By turning off the mains and then turning them on the broken one was finally discovered. Commissioner Woods and Inspector Dwyer were in charge of the police. Thirty men from the Department of Water Supply, Gas and Electricity under Merrit T. Smith, chief engineer, and Engineer Byrne ripped up the streets to locate the exact spot of the break. Damage to the flooded cellars is estimated at about $100,000.”

Reference:  Municipal Journal 38:6(February 11, 1915): 194.