Tag Archives: sewers

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.

References:

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 7, 1912: Milwaukee Sewerage Design

Imhoff Tank Sewage Treatment Plant under construction, 1912

Imhoff Tank Sewage Treatment Plant under construction, 1912

March 7, 1912: Municipal Journal article. Some Principles of Sewerage Design. “The report of the Sewerage Commission upon the problem presented by the city of Milwaukee, the general conclusions of which were referred to in our issue of Feb. 29, contains a number of features among its details which are of considerable interest. One of these is the quantity of sewage which the engineers, Messrs. Alvord, Eddy and Whipple, think it desirable to provide for. The maximum rate of flow of sewage at the present time is approximately 250 gallons per capita per day, this including water used in manufacturing and ground water leaking into the sewers. The proposed sewer system is estimated of a capacity sufficient for the population and other requirements of the year 1950, and the maximum flow at that time is estimated at 350 gallons per capita per day. As the amount of ground water seepage per capita will probably be less rather than greater at that time, this indicates a belief in a very high rate of water consumption for domestic and manufacturing purposes 40 years hence. The importance, in their opinion, of manufacturing wastes in such a calculation is indicated by the fact that more than three times as much sewage per acre is allowed for from the manufacturing as from the residential areas.

In making provisions for the future, the engineers believe that this should be governed to a great extent by the possibilities of gradual enlargement of capacity of the work in question. Thus sewers, the capacity of which can be increased only at great expense, they think should be designed for the probable needs of the city in 1950; while the sewage purification works, which can be easily enlarged by the addition of small units, they think should be constructed at the present time for a capacity of only 15 or 20 years in advance. An additional argument in favor of the latter is that our knowledge concerning purification methods is continually increasing, and it is very probable that improvements in details, if not in actual principles of operation will be available by that time.”

Reference: “Some Principles of Sewerage Design.” 1912. Municipal Journal. 32:10(March 7, 1912): 349.

Commentary: The three prominent engineers (Alvord, Eddy and Whipple) were wise to not lock in treatment technology in 1912 for 50 years. They knew that the knowledge in this area of sanitary engineering was advancing at a significant rate. They wanted their client to benefit from such a technological advance when it occurred some years in the future.

#TDIWH—February 28, 1895: Los Angeles Sewer System

0228 LA Sewer system aFebruary 28, 1895: Engineering News article. The Sewerage System of Los Angeles, Cal. by Burr Bassell. “The City of Los Angeles is built upon both sides of a torrential stream, called the Los Angeles River, at a point 20 miles from its mouth. The corporate limits of the city may be described as a square, more than five miles on a side, containing 18,597 acres….

The present river channel is dependent upon artificial means for the confinement of its waters. Its bed is 30 ft. higher at the point where it leaves the south charter boundary, than at the southwest corner of the city. This change of channel is probably due to the influence of a tributary, called the Arroyo Seco, which empties its storm-waters laden with sand, gravel and boulders from the mountains on the north into the very center of the city….

The census of 1880 gave a population of 11,183, that of 1890, 50,395. A conservative estimate for 1894 is 70,000.

The first comprehensive plan for sewering the city was prepared in 1887 by Mr. Fred Eaton, M. Am. Soc. C. E., at the time city surveyor. It was designed on the separate system, with an outfall sewer to the sea, via the Centinela Rancho. His estimated cost of the internal system was $533,846, and for an outfall sewer to the ocean by the Centinela route, 11.5 miles in length, $466,154, making a total of $1,000,000.

Mr. Rudolph Hering, M. Am. Soc. C. E., reported favorably on Mr. Eaton’s plans, and stated that the problem of designing a good sewerage system for the city presented no serious difficulties.

Reference: Bassell, Burr, 1895. “The Sewerage System of Los Angeles, Cal.” Engineering News. 33:9(February 28, 1895): 139.

Commentary: This article is remarkable in so many ways. Los Angeles was only 25 square miles and the population was only 70,000! Obviously, the city has grown a bit since the article was written. Incidentally, the article goes on at length to describe other sewering options. The plot plan below represented the preferred option. As near as I can tell, the outfall for this sewer is right about where the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is now located.

Mr. Fred Eaton went on to play an infamous role in Los Angeles water wars. In 1905, Eaton was a central character in the purchase of the Owens Valley lands that formed the basis for the Los Angeles water supply imported from the Eastern Sierras. Eaton’s actions were conducted under the inappropriate cloak of respectability of the U.S. Reclamation Service which has caused hard feelings in the region for the past 100+ years. Rudolph Hering played a role in this project. He has been portrayed many times in this blog including two days ago when we celebrated the anniversary of his birth.

0228 LA Sewer system

#TDIWH—February 15, 1917: Sewer Pipe Failures

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

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.

#TDIWH—February 3, 1909: Sewage Disposal in Pennsylvania

0203-activated-sludge-plant-at-clevelandFebruary 3, 1909: Municipal Journal and Engineer article. Sewage Disposal in Pennsylvania. “As indicated from time to time in our columns, the matter of sewage disposal is just now assuming more importance in Pennsylvania than in possibly any other State of the Union, this being due largely to the activity of the new State Board of Health under the recent laws endowing it with unusual powers. Two of the latest propositions as well as the largest are those which are ordered for the cities of Harrisburg and Pittsburg. The public press of the former city states that the city officials are about to begin at once preparing plans for works which are roughly estimated to cost one and a half to two million dollars. This does not contemplate the present treatment of the sewage of that city, but only a better location of outlets and the preparation of plans for treatment. Pittsburg, however, is directed to take immediate steps toward building a sewage disposal plant which is estimated to cost fifteen to twenty million dollars; this order possibly being hastened by the typhoid epidemic which is sweeping through the small towns located on the river below Pittsburg.”

Commentary: It was only after the turn of the century that states began to get serious about requiring treatment of sewage before discharge to local streams.

Reference: “Sewage Disposal in Pennsylvania.” Municipal Journal and Engineer. 26:5(February 3, 1909): 167.

#TDIWH—January 24, 1876: Hemlock Lake Water Supply; 1972: Vincent B. Nesfield Dies; 1800: Birth of Edwin Chadwick

Hemlock Lake

Hemlock Lake

January 24, 1876: Glory! Hemlock Water at Last! “So proclaimed the [Rochester, NY] newspaper headline on January 24, 1876 as it announced the arrival of Hemlock Lake water into Mt. Hope Reservoir (today named Highland Reservoir). Finally, after more than three decades of political bickering and aborted construction attempts, Rochester had an abundant supply of pure wholesome drinking water. While an asset such as this may barely raise an eyebrow today, in 1876 this was truly a glorious event for the 70,000 citizens of Rochester.

In the era before the arrival of Hemlock water, wells and cisterns were the only source of drinking water. For the average resident, one well or cistern was shared by several families. Not surprisingly, the water quality of these wells was terrible in a city honeycombed with cesspools and privies. The author of an 1875 Board of Health report stated that, “We have few wells in our city that are fit for use, and in the densely populated portion they are almost without exception, absolutely unfit.” Diseases such as dysentery, cholera and typhoid were widespread. Periods of drought amplified these hardships”

0124 VB NesfieldJanuary 24, 1972: Vincent B. Nesfield dies. Nesfield was the first person to use chlorine gas under pressure to disinfect drinking water. In 1903, Lieutenant Vincent B. Nesfield of the British Indian Medical Services published a remarkable paper in a British public health journal. (Nesfield 1903) In the paper, he described his search for a chemical disinfectant to purify drinking water that would be suitable for use in the field as part of a military campaign. He came up with the idea of producing chlorine gas by electrolytic cells and then compressing the gas with 6 atmospheres of pressure until it liquefied which facilitated its storage in lead-lined steel tanks that held about 20 pounds of liquid chlorine. He treated 50 gallon batches of water by submerging the gas valve of the chlorine cylinder and opening it slightly to bubble the chlorine gas into the water.

In a later paper, Nesfield stated that about 5.4 mg/L of chlorine (2 grams per 100 gallons) killed all typhoid and cholera bacteria. After a 5-minute contact time, he added sodium sulphite to the treated water to remove the excess chlorine and prevent taste problems. (Nesfield 1905) To say that he was ahead of his time is a vast understatement. It would be 7 years before liquid chlorine in pressurized cylinders was widely available in the U.S. for water utilities to use as an alternative to chloride of lime.

Passing references to Nesfield’s unique treatment method can be found in some publications in the early 20th century. In a discussion of two papers on chlorination of water and sewage in 1911, Dr. L.P. Kinnicutt mentioned Nesfield’s liquid chlorine addition method and went on to describe an iodine tablet developed by Nesfield that was more portable (and undoubtedly caused more taste problems). Therefore, there was at least some early knowledge in the U.S. of the use of liquid chlorine to disinfect drinking water. There was one mention of Nesfield’s system of purification in a 1920 encyclopedia section on water supply. (Hill 1920) A note in a journal devoted to tropical medicine in 1907, described how successful chlorination was for a unit of the British colonial army marching toward Agra. (Pure Water 1907)

There was limited mention of Nesfield and his groundbreaking work on chlorine disinfection in histories of drinking water disinfection. In Race’s remarkable 1918 book on chlorination of water, he gave Nesfield credit for the first use of liquefied chlorine for the disinfection of water. (Race 1918) Baker devoted a few sentences to Nesfield’s contributions. (Baker 1981) In a later summary of the progress of drinking water disinfection in 1950, Race again gave credit for Nesfield’s unique application of chlorine technology. (Race 1950)

References:

Baker, Moses N. 1981. The Quest for Pure Water: the History of Water Purification from the Earliest Records to the Twentieth Century. 2nd Edition. Vol. 1. Denver, Co.: American Water Works Association.

Hill, Henry W. 1920. “Water Supply: For Municipal, Domestic and Potable Purposes, Including Its Sources, Conservation, Purification and Distribution.” In The Encyclopedia Americana, 39–65.

Nesfield, Vincent B. 1903. “A Chemical Method of Sterilizing Water Without Affecting its Potability.” Public Health. 15(7): 601–3.

Nesfield, Vincent B. 1905. “A Simple Chemical Process of Sterilizing Water for Drinking Purposes for Use in the Field and at Home.” The Journal of Preventive Medicine. 8: 623-32.

“Pure Water.” 1907. Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 10(January 15): 30.

Race, Joseph. 1918. Chlorination of Water. New York City, N.Y.: John Wiley & Sons.

Race, Joseph. 1950. “Forty Years of Chlorination: 1910–1949.” Journal Institution of Water Engineers. 4: 479–505.

Edwin Chadwick

Edwin Chadwick

January 24, 1800: Edwin Chadwick is born. 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.

References:

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

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

December 25, 1908: Drought Cartoon; 1913: Water Stories Wrapped Up in a Bow

1225 Drought CartoonDecember 25, 1908: Drought Cartoon. The Los Angeles Times has published cartoons over more than 100 years that depict the many droughts that California has suffered and the reactions to them. Here is one that I think you will enjoy.

December 25, 1913: A number of interesting water stories from the pages of the Municipal Journal.

Hetch Hetchy Dam

Hetch Hetchy Dam

Hetch-Hetchy Bill Signed. “Washington, D. C.-The bill giving the city of San Francisco the right to secure its water supply from Hetch Hetchy Valley, in Yosemite National Park, to which considerable objection has been taken, was signed by President Wilson. President Wilson attached a statement to the bill in which he set forth his reasons for signing it: he is of the opinion that the pressing public needs of San Francisco will be best served, and that the usefulness of the park will not be impaired.” Commentary: This is the bill that killed John Muir one year and one day later.

0504 Sacramento Water SupplyInvestigate Possible Sources of Water Supply. “Sacramento, Cal.-It was decided by the City Commission to begin an investigation of possible sources of mountain water supply beginning January 1st. The work will be in charge of City Engineer Albert Givan. The investigation will be of a preliminary nature and will occupy three months. The cost is limited to $2,400. Three men will be employed to analyze the waters of the middle and south tributaries of the American River, the middle and south tributaries of the Cosumnes River and the Mokelumne River. Gauge measurements also will be made. The total cost of the investigation is expected to reach $10,000.” Commentary: We know now, of course, that the city decided to tap the American River in the city limits. The Mokelumne River was left to the East Bay Municipal Utilities Department to develop as a water resource.

Sewer Work in Watertown N.Y. “Watertown, N. Y.-There are 46.2 miles of sewer within the city at the present time, according to totals secured by City Engineer Earle W. Sayles in figuring up the work done this season and in previous years….Mr. Sayles believes that by the expenditure of $5,000 for its purchase and maintenance the city could secure a sewer cleaning machine which would result in fixing up some of the old sewers in the city and cause a big saving. There are in use in the city at the present time some sewers that are close to a half-century old.” Commentary: They had aging infrastructure problems in 1913!

0726 Allen HazenCombining Municipal Water Systems. “Norfolk and Portsmouth, Va., neighboring cities, have municipal water works systems, each of which has been found to be reaching the limit of its resources, especially for meeting unusual demands; and the cities are now considering an arrangement for combining the plants for the mutual benefit of both. The consulting engineer of the Norfolk Water Commission, Allen Hazen, in a communication to the commission points out a number of advantages which would he obtained by such combination.

According to the conditions as outlined by him, the two systems would in an important measure supplement each other. This is because of the fact that the Norfolk system contains a storage capacity which is larger than is warranted by the tributary drainage area, while on the other hand the Portsmouth drainage area supplies more water than it has storage capacity to fully utilize. Commentary: Once again the outstanding engineer, Allen Hazen, steps in to solve a thorny water problem at the beginning of the 20th century.”

Reference: Municipal Journal. 1913. 35:26(December 25, 1913): 856, 866-7.