Tag Archives: sewage

July 6, 1917: 100 year Anniversary of the National Clay Pipe Institute; 1890: Death of Edwin Chadwick

Vitrified Clay Pipe

July 6, 1917: “Clay pipe has a history that goes back millennia, with the earliest known example coming from Babylonia in 4,000 BC, according to sewerhistory.org….The clay sewer pipe industry in the United States dates back to 1815 with installations in Washington, D.C. In 1849, the first domestic clay pipe manufacturing facility was established in Middlebury, Ohio. In the years that followed, cities across the country began laying pipe systems to convey sewage away from populated areas…. Around the turn of the 20th century, it was recognized that sewer pipe standards were needed; size, strength, quality and installation methods varied widely from location to location. As a result, an ASTM Committee was formed for clay sewer pipes. Eventually, this led to the publication of Standard C13 on the Manufacture of Clay Pipe in 1917 (which is now incorporated into ASTM C700).

That same year, the Clay Products Association was formed with the merger of the International Clay Products Bureau and the Society of Vitrified Clay Pipe Manufacturers. That organization – now known as the National Clay Pipe Institute – is celebrating its 100th anniversary amidst a resurgence of vitrified clay as a preferred gravity sanitary sewer pipe.”

Edwin Chadwick

July 6, 1890: Death of Edwin Chadwick. Edwin Chadwick was an English social reformer who was noted for his work to reform the Poor Laws and improve sanitary conditions and public health. The appointment of the Poor Law Commission in 1834 which included Edwin Chadwick is widely believed to be the beginning of the sanitary movement in England. Through Chadwick’s work and influence, more sophisticated health statistics were collected which revealed that public health problems were increasing at a rapid rate. Chadwick imposed his “sanitary idea” which focused on disease prevention. A survey published by the Poor Law Commission in 1842 detailed the horrific working and living conditions in England at the time. The report linked epidemic disease, especially related to fever diseases (typhoid, typhus and cholera) to filthy environmental conditions. Privy vaults, shallow urban wells and piles of garbage and animal excrement in the streets were all related to the increases in disease.

“‘The great preventatives,’” he wrote, “‘drainage, street and house cleansing by means of supplies of water and improved sewerage, and especially the introduction of cheaper and more efficient modes of removing all noxious reuse from the towns, are operations for which aid must be sought from the science of the Civil Engineer, not from the physician, who has done his work when he has pointed out the disease that results from the neglect of proper administrative measures, and has alleviated the sufferings of the victims.’” (Rosen 1993)

Of course, the best way to identify and locate these health threats was to determine where the greatest odors of putrefaction were located and tie the solution to the problem—miasmas.

Chadwick was not ultimately successful in all he tried to do to clean up the noxious wastes in London and other concentrations of population in England. However, he did have a profound influence on a series of laws that were passed in the mid to late 1800s which began to implement some of his vision. (Rosen 1993) The formation of boards of health and the appointment of health officers under these laws provided advocates for cleaning up the filth.

It is a common misconception among chroniclers of the time period, 1850 to 1900, that the act of installing sewers, in and of itself, was an effective public health protection strategy. Edwin Chadwick was one of the major proponents of this misconception. In the 1840s he became one of the leaders of the European Sanitary Movement. In his famous report published in 1842, Chadwick promoted four themes:

  • Relationship of unsanitary living conditions and disease (based on the miasma theory)
  • Economic effects of poor living conditions
  • Social effects of poor living conditions (e.g., drunkenness, immorality, disease)
  • Need for new administrative systems to effect changes (Halliday 2001)

Chadwick had a vision of vast sewer systems collecting human waste and transporting it out to rural areas where it would be put to beneficial use as fertilizer for farms. Water supply would be provided to cities through a piped water system from protected sources that were not affected by any locale’s sewage. Unfortunately, only one out of three parts of Chadwick’s vision were implemented in London and elsewhere. Sewers were built but the crucial sanitary disposal of human waste on farmland was not. Sewage was discharged into rivers and lakes after which time no surface supplied drinking water was safe.


Halliday, Stephen. 2001. The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis. London, U.K.: History Press.

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

Rosen, George. 1993. A History of Public Health. Expanded Edition, Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University.

June 23, 1909: Sewer Work in Louisville, KY

June 23, 1909: Municipal Journal and Engineer article. Sewer Work in Louisville. “The city of Louisville, Ky., is now doing a large amount of sewer main construction. For nearly eighteen years prior to the beginning of the present work practically nothing had been done in sewer work and Louisville, which is a large and growing city, was lamentably weak in sanitation. After considerable agitation the city, in 1906, was authorized to issue $4,000,000 worth of bonds for constructing additions to the existing systems and building new ones.

A sewer commission was appointed by the Mayor, consisting of P. L . Atherton, chairman ; Oscar Finley, W. C. Nones and Alfred Seligman. This commission employed Mr. Harrison P. Eddy, of Boston, as consulting engineer, and Mr. J. B. F. Breed, former city engineer, became chief engineer of the Sewer Commission. Mr. J. H. Kimball, formerly assistant city engineer, of Newton, Mass., was secured as designing engineer, and Messrs. F. C. Williams, H. S. Morse and H. P. Wires as resident engineers in charge of construction work.

A large amount of preliminary work was necessary, including surveys and borings. These borings were numerous and covered the lines so thoroughly that the conditions to be met with in excavation were very accurately known. It was found best to use an auger for this purpose. As was found by the borings and later confirmed in the actual excavation, the top layer of earth for about 10 feet was of a clayey nature. Below this as deep as excavations were to be carried the material was a mixture of sand and gravel, the relative proportions of which varied from place to place. These materials made the handling of the material very easy, but great care has been necessary to properly brace the banks as the gravel has little power of cohesion to hold itself in place.”

June 16, 1858: Death of Dr. John Snow

Dr. 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.

June 5, 1913: Sewage Treatment in Fitchburg, MA

June 5, 1913: Engineering News article. Sewage Treatment Works for Fitchburg, Mass. “Sewage-treatment works, consisting of Imhoff tanks, sludge beds, sprinkling filters and secondary or final settling tanks are about to be built for Fitchburg, Mass., under a contract awarded in May, 1913. Special features of this plant are rectangular Imhoff tanks, built side by side with dividing walls, cement-plaster partitions forming troughs and gas vents, and the use of structural-steel frames to support the reinforced-concrete walls of the tanks and also the partitions just mentioned; the installation of the air lift for removing sludge from the Imhoff tanks, the approval by the Massachusetts State Board of Health of sprinkling filters, the first plant of the kind to be thus approved; the construction of sprinkling filters 10ft. in depth; the building of a 2-in. cement plastered curtain wall between the natural ground and the stone filling of the sprinkling filters.

The City of Fitchburg is located in the north central part of the State of Massachusetts on the North Branch of the Nashua River. In 1910 the city had a population of 37,826. A large number of manufacturing industries are located here on account of the excellent water power afforded by the numerous storage reservoirs along the river. The city is fairly well served by a system of sewers designed on the combined plan, which empty into the river at various points along its course. During the last two years, an intercepting sewer has been under construction, and at the present time is nearly completed, varying in size from 48 to 30 in. in diameter. The intercepting sewer will divert the sewage from the river and convey it to the trunk sewer through which it will flow to the sewage-treatment works. For a distance of 5500 ft. above the sewage-treatment works, the trunk sewer is in the form of an inverted siphon, constructed of 30-in. cast-iron pipe, at the upper end of which a chamber has been constructed with an overflow direct to the Nashua River, and a 36-in. stub for the future construction of an additional inverted siphon to be built when the normal quantity of sewage exceeds the capacity of the present siphon. Before the sewage enters the inverted siphon, it will pass through a grit chamber and coarse screen, where the gravel and sand will be removed and large objects, which might cause obstruction to the inverted siphon, will be retained. This grit chamber has been constructed in the sewer department yard where it will be readily accessible for inspection and cleaning.”

Reference: Marston, F.A. 1913. Sewage Treatment Works for Fitchburg, Mass. Engineering News, 69:23:1176, June 5.

Commentary: And thus the dumping of raw sewage into the heavily used rivers of the northeastern U.S. began to be curtailed. Intercepting sewers and rudimentary sewage works would begin to make a positive difference in river water quality. It would take many decades before the job was finished.


May 30, 1923: Death of Rudolph Hering; 1912: Death of Wilbur Wright

Rudolph Hering

May 30, 1923: Death of Rudolph Hering. “Although Dr. Hering was one of the first to recommend mechanical filters for pumping the water supplies at Atlanta, and elsewhere, and was connected with important water supply investigations at New York, Philadelphia, Washington, New Orleans, Columbus, Montreal, Minneapolis and numerous smaller places, his accomplishments were greatest in the field of sewerage and sewage disposal and led to his having been designated years ago as the ‘Dean of Sanitary Engineering” in this country. Recognition of such standing was perhaps first made by President Harrison, who, in 1889, appointed him Chairman of a Commission to prepare a program for sewerage improvements for Washington, D. C.

Dr. Hering was an active worker on the committees of various professional organizations as well as civic movements. His most important work was undoubtedly that for the American Public Health Association in the matter of the collection and disposal of refuse. He gathered statistics as to results of operation and otherwise elucidated practice in this country and Europe. Some twenty-five years ago he gave liberally of his own time and money for gathering information upon this subject, although his activities in the field of water supply and sewerage did not permit him to publish the results of his investigations in the disposal of solid wastes of the municipalities.

Dr. Hering was in partnership with George W. Fuller, M. Am. Soc. C. E., from 1901 to 1911 and with John H. Gregory, M. Am. Soc. C. E., from 1911 to 1915. After the latter date his activities were confined largely to work upon a book on ‘Collection and Disposal of Refuse’ of which he was a joint author with Samuel A. Greeley, M. Am. Soc. C. E….

He received an honorary degree of Doctor of Science from the University of Pennsylvania in 1907, and an honorary degree of Doctor of Engineering from the Polytechnic Institute at Dresden in 1922. He was a member of a large number of engineering societies both in this country and in Europe. He was an honorary member of the New England Water Works Association and of the American Water Works Association and a Past President of the American Public Health Association. He became a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1876, was Director in 1891, 1897 to 1899, and Vice President in 1900 to 1901.”

Reference: “Rudolph Hering.” 1924. Journal AWWA. 11:1(January): 305.

May 30, 1912: Wilbur Wright dies of typhoid fever.

The year 1908 signaled the beginning of drinking water disinfection in the U.S. A lot of important things happened in that year and later. Jim Rasenberger in his book, America 1908, chronicled the technological, exploration, political and sociological milestones in the U.S. during 1908. On the first page of his book, he stated succinctly the thrills attendant to the year, “…1908, by whatever quirk of history or cosmology, was one hell of a ride around the sun.” During these 366 days, the Wright brothers amazed the world with extended flights of heavier-than-air machines, the Model T went into production, two explorers reached for the North Pole, a 20,000 mile race in automobiles from New York to Paris was started and completed, a new President was elected, the national pastime captured the attention of the country in a strange pennant race, the Great White fleet started its round-the-world cruise and deadly race riots and other violence scarred the national conscience.

The capstone to 1908 was a two-hour and twenty minute flight by Wilbur Wright on December 31 in a suburb of Paris, which shattered all previous records for continuous flight. For manned flight, this was truly a major year. “In tracing the development of aeronautics, the historian of the future will point to the year 1908 as that in which the problem of mechanical flight was first mastered…”

To put the achievements of the Wright brothers in the context of their time and the history of application of scientific principles, part of Wilbur’s obituary summed up their accomplishments.

“The death of Wilbur Wright has brought intense personal sorrow to all who were in any way associated with him…The science of aviation has lost its greatest student, and in time to come the name of Wilbur Wright will be recorded in the annals of invention with the names of such pioneers as Robert Fulton, Stephenson (first steam locomotive engine), Bell, and others who have given to the world the value of practical experiments and successful achievements.” (emphasis added)

Thus, Wilbur Wright was not the first person to gaze at a bird and wonder how humans could fly. Nor was he the first person to build an airplane and try to lift off the ground. He and his brother, Orville, were the first to actually accomplish powered flight, but, more importantly, they demonstrated in a practical manner how to control that flight. Once again, technological progress is made by those who make an idea work.   An original idea without practical implementation is just a waste of oxygen feeding the brain.

Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever on May 30, 1912. He was just 45 years old. Four years earlier, he had astonished the world with his extended flights near Paris. What might he have achieved in continued partnership with his brother, Orville, had he not been struck down so early? The disinfection revolution did not spread fast enough to save the life of this inventor and world-renowned figure. But chlorination did travel fast enough and far enough to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of future inventors, engineers and scientists who transformed the U.S. and the world with their creativity.

What does the author of America 1908 make of the disinfection revolution that occurred during this seminal year a few miles from the center of his story, New York City? Not surprisingly, no mention is made of the events that occurred at Boonton Reservoir. Only passing mention is made of public health and water supply with millions dying from infectious diseases, a cholera epidemic in Manila when the Great White Fleet visited and the construction of a new water supply by Mulholland for Los Angeles. The cause of Wright’s typhoid fever has been described as coming from various sources. Wilbur’s obituary mentioned bad fish in a Boston restaurant, but the author of the obituary had no particular reason for believing that was the source.   The only thing that appears to be certain is that he contracted the disease on a business trip back East (that is, east of Dayton, Ohio).

As noted in the previous chapter, chlorination had been instituted in hundreds of U.S. cities by 1912 but the typhoid death rate was still high. Boston had a typhoid fever death rate of 8 per 100,000 in 1912. In the same year, Washington, DC and Baltimore had typhoid death rates of 22 and 24 per 100,000.   Wilbur Wright more likely died from contaminated water rather than bad fish.

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

May 19, 1909: Disposal of Chicago’s Sewage

May 19, 1909: Municipal Journal and Engineer article. Disposal of Chicago’s Sewage. “The greatest sanitary undertaking the world has ever seen is the work being done by the Sanitary District of Chicago in securing a pure water supply and a disposal of the sewage from this mammoth city. Prior to the beginning of this project, all the sewage from the city was emptied into Lake Michigan, either directly or through the Chicago River. At the same time the water supply of the city came from the same lake and the intake cribs were only a few miles from the sewer outlet. Consequently, it was not surprising that the typhoid death rate was almost the highest in the country. While the· work is not yet completed, and there still remain a number of sewers emptying into the lake, conditions have been so improved that the City of Chicago had one of the lowest typhoid death rates, during the past year, of any city in the United States. Dr. Evans, Health Commissioner of Chicago, states that 16,299 lives have been saved during the past eight years by the improvement of the water supply due to the drainage canal.”

Reference: “Disposal of Chicago’s Sewage.” 1909. Municipal Journal and Engineer. 26:20(May 19, 1909): 879.

Commentary: The greatest in the world. Chicagoans have never been shy about using hyperbole to describe their public works. It is true that the typhoid fever rate was dramatically decreased due to the Drainage Canal. But, it would take the installation of chlorine 1911-1917 to break the Sewer Pipe, Water Pipe Death Spiral.

May 7, 1848: Public Health Act, England

May 7, 1848:Public Health Act is passed by a reluctant Parliament fearful of spread of cholera. National Board of Health is formed and leads local boards to regulate water supply, sewerage, offensive trades.”

“The first local boards [of health] were created under the Public Health Act 1848 (11 & 12 Vict. c.63). The aim of the act was to improve the sanitary condition of towns and populous places in England and Wales by placing the supply of water, sewerage, drainage, cleansing and paving under a single local body. The act could be applied to any place in England and Wales except the City of London and some other areas in the Metropolis already under the control of sewer commissioners. The Act was passed by the incoming Liberal government, under Prime Minister Lord John Russell, in response to urgings by Edwin Chadwick.”