Back from the future ­ a remarkable past

A personal view by Tom Davey

Millennium fever is cresting as ES&E completes its 12th year of publishing, an appropriate opportunity to revisit the past and examine the quite remarkable progress in water treatment and public health. The literature shows that engineers and chemists responded to life-threatening epidemics with remarkable prescience, research and intelligence. Surprisingly, their efforts ­ and positive results ­ predate contemporary activism by more than a century.

The walking beam of Thomas Keefer's masterpiece restored for all to see by UMA Engineering Ltd. in 1998.

For example, in response to a 1854 cholera epidemic in Hamilton, Ontario, which killed 552 of the city's 14,000 inhabitants, the city commissioned a waterworks and pumping station. The remarkable Thomas Keefer began building his steam-driven water pump which was completed in 18591. His engineering masterpiece was recently restored to its former glory by UMA Engineering, and remains a fine monument to Canadian environmental engineering. Though the germ theory was unknown at the time of construction, this pump alone is now thought to have saved thousands of lives by permitting access to a purer water source.

Now, as we conclude the 20th century with fantastic analytical and design capabilities, it is difficult to believe that even in the late 19th century, thousands died from water borne diseases. Any suggestion of germ theories brought ridicule even though medical science had no idea of what caused cholera, typhoid or other lethal diseases.

Well over 150 years ago, John Snow, a London doctor, began to suspect that cholera was 'biological in origin and multiplied itself by a kind of growth'. He began to do extensive field work in his epidemiological studies while maintaining a busy medical practice. Lethal epidemics, in those days, could sweep across continents like conquering armies. Cholera outbreaks were often made worse by ignorance because neither the diseases, nor their transmission modes were even remotely understood by the medical profession.

Dr. Snow's arduous field research was conducted in the face of medical scepticism and even mockery. With neither funding nor the analytical and statistical resources which are available to modern epidemiologists, he pursued his lonely dream which yielded an incredible amount of statistical data. He walked miles along river banks, estimated the effects of tides on river flows, compiled reams of statistics on water supply sources and tabulated them with cholera outbreaks.

Nor did he lack courage. After he traced a large number of deaths to the Broad Street hand-operated water pump in London's Soho district, he had the pump handle removed, thus preventing water from this well being used. To cut off an area's water supply was a bold step which preceded Greenpeace by more than 120 years. His activism was balanced by altruism when he published On the Mode of Communication of Cholera (1855). This painstaking work included a map of Soho which indicated the cholera deaths for every home served by water companies in the area. The book cost him 200 pounds sterling to publish, a large sum in those days, especially for a man who was far from wealthy. Only 56 copies were sold which earned him three pounds 12 shillings.

The medical establishment's indifference at a time when thousands were dying of cholera was quite astounding. In spite of his extensive researches, plus the demands of his medical practice, he was finally able to publish his correct hypothesis about the alimentary mechanism of cholera and how the disease was spread, in a medical journal. His prescience is shown in his recommendation to boil water used for drinking and culinary purposes long before Pasteur was to become a household word.

While Dr. Snow met with rebuffs and indifference, more than two decades later, Louis Pasteur was holding Paris audiences spellbound with his discoveries and demonstrations. He showed that putrefaction occurred only in material which is exposed to air in which millions of germs of many species are present. His first researches were with wine, beer, then silkworms and he was also the first to vaccinate sheep against anthrax. Only around 1876 did Pasteur turn to the infection of humans. Today, pasteurization is a synonym for health around the world in many languages, a memorial any scientist would envy. Louis Pasteur received many honours, including professorial appointments, induction into the French Academy of Medicine and a life pension from the French National Assembly.

Though Dr. Snow's work on germ theory was published in 1855, it was not until the 1870s that Robert Koch published his findings after visiting Calcutta and Alexandria. He recovered the comma-shaped bacteria of vibrio cholerae from the intestines of people who had died of cholera, then learned how to cultivate them outside the body on beef-broth jelly. In 1884 he received a hero's welcome in Berlin, a medal and 100,000 marks from the Reichstag.

In contrast to the recognition of Koch and Pasteur, Dr. Snow was never elected to the Royal Society and was virtually forgotten when he died of a stroke at the age of 44. His legacy gave long life to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. Most will never know that they, their parents, grandparents, great grandparents and beyond, might never have been born but for a lone doctor's tenacity and foresight ­ a milestone in public health and pure drinking water.

Another milestone in public health was the creation of the American Water Works Association in 1881, to be joined later by what is now the Water Environment Federation. These world-renowned bodies have done much to advance the state-of-the-art in public health, with Canada having a strong presence reflected in several AWWA and WEF associations and sections throughout Canada. Worthy of note as we enter the new millennium ­ only one person has ever been president of both the AWWA and WEF, Dr. Albert Edward Berry2.

But even as the young Albert Berry served in the army as a lieutenant during WWI, a Canadian chemist, Lt. Colonel Nasmith, played a major role on the battlefields of France and Belgium. His outstanding academic record included an M.A., Ph.D., D.P.M., and a D.Sc. ­ all from the University of Toronto. His studies enabled him to devise viable methods to purify drinking water on the battlefields. This was a vital service as impure drinking water has killed more people than weapons of war.

As officer commanding No. 5 Mobile Laboratory in France, he had full supervision of all water purification for the First Canadian Army and latterly, the second British Army in the field. Dr. Nasmith also played a major role in the understanding that the first use of gas warfare by the enemy at Ypres, in April, 1915, was a combination of chlorine and bromine. Returning from the army, he later became one of the founding partners of what is now CH2M Gore & Storrie Ltd.

The younger Lieutenant Berry was born two months before the commencement of the 20th century. One of nine children born on a farm, his life was to become a brilliant litany of achievements. When he died at the age of 90, he was probably the most honoured environmental engineer in the world. I met him many times. During one interview at his home, he told me he had met Ardern and Lockett, the discoverers of the activated sludge process. He met many other notable scientists as he embarked on his brilliant career as both an academic and public servant.

As the first General Manager and Chief Engineer of the Ontario Water Resources Commission in 1956, he presided over unprecedented construction of water and wastewater treatment plants throughout Ontario. I was privileged to discuss some of the OWRC data at a World Health Organization conference in Rome. Many delegates said this scale of treatment plant construction in Ontario was unmatched anywhere in the world. Regrettably, like Dr. Snow and Dr. Nasmith, most people have never heard of Dr. Berry, neither have some senior Ministry of Environment people. This is astounding really as the Ministry stemmed directly from the OWRC.

These three men, a doctor, a chemist and an engineer, had a tremendous impact on the environment and public health yet they languish in obscurity.

While activism is usually associated with protest movements, many courageous initiatives were undertaken by these environmental pioneers. Working alone, Dr. Snow showed great tenacity and generosity of spirit as he pursued his research and financed his own findings. Dr. Berry, scientist, engineer and civil servant, frequently took on politicians who were reluctant to upgrade water treatment facilities because they wished to avoid the costs. But, Dr. Berry, unlike Dr. Snow, had the power and resources of a rich province behind him, which, it must be said, he used wisely and effectively.

Dr. Philip Jones, P.Eng., a key figure in the creation of the University of Toronto's Institute for Environmental Studies, collaborated with me on an article on eutrophication in 1968, in which he called for a reduction in phosphorus in laundry detergents. The article, published in Water & Pollution Control, received national media coverage and resulted in numerous TV and print interviews. He was later invited to testify at a Congressional Hearing in Washington, DC, on the subject. The original article was also published in Crisis3, an environmental anthology by MacMillan of Canada in 1971. This book also contained an essay by Professor Jim Dales, who in my opinion, first posited the idea of emissions trading which is now taking place on a global scale.

Later, I was invited to meet with Joe Greene, then federal Energy and Resources Minister4 and wrote a further article on eutrophication from that interview. Some learned scientists were doing sophisticated and award-winning research into the causes of eutrophication but I believe it was the activism of Philip Jones which was a major factor which led to an amendment to the Canada Water Act. This amendment restricted the amount of phosphorus in detergents. Dr. Jones received the A.E. Berry Award from the Canadian Society for Civil Engineers and the Professional Engineers of Ontario's Engineering Medal.

A professor of both microbiology and civil engineering, he played a major role in many international events. These included World Health Organization symposia in Rome, Italy, Jabolonu, Poland, and lectures in Beijing, Harbin and Tsienjin. He was conference chairman of the 10th Biennial Conference of the International Association on Water Quality, 1980, in Toronto. Later he became founding Professor of the new Environmental Engineering School at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia, where he died in 1994.

His friend and mine, Dr. J.D. Norman, P.Eng., was IAWQ Conference President in 1998, the last such conference of the 20th century. Dr. Norman, a former Professor at McMaster University, carried out some pioneering studies using fish as biological monitors, decades ago.

The late Pat Bourgeois (left), handed over the FACE Chain of Office in 1979 to Stan Mason of BC, a former Chair of BCW&WA and Fuller awardee. Photo - Tom Davey

The late Pat Bourgeois, one of the driving forces when the Association Québécoise des Techniques de l'Eau was formed, was AQTE's first AWWA Director. He became President of the Federation of Associations on the Canadian Environment, and passed over the Chain of Office to BC's Stanley Mason in Vancouver at a BCW&WA annual conference. Bob Goodings, another Fuller awardee, received the Chain of Office in 1980 in Toronto. Later, FACE, a bilingual acronym, dissolved into what is now the Canadian Association of Water & Wastewater Associations. I was attending the AQTE meeting in Quebec City when Pat Bourgeois was presented with an honorary presidency by AQTE. Tragically, he was felled by a heart attack and died the same day. All of the above are professional engineers. AQTE, now Réseau environnement, was, by far, the most aggressive and powerful association in the environmental field in Canada. Few ministers of environment ­ federal or provincial ­ would pass up any opportunities to address AQTE conferences.

Until the final decades of the 20th century, when Rachel Carson shocked the world with her Silent Spring, women usually played a secondary role in environmental affairs. Notable exceptions were Jeanne Sauvé, a federal Environment Minister and later Governor General, Ruth Grier and Brenda Elliott, both of whom became Ontario Environment Ministers. At the same ministry, Anne Vajdic was a highly regarded researcher, writer and presenter at environmental conferences. In academia, Dr. Pamela Stokes (now Welbourn), became the first woman Director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Toronto in 1984.

In professional associations, a new generation has taken leadership roles in environmental engineering and chemistry. In 1992, Marie Meunier, M.Sc., became President of what is now Réseau environnement, still the foremost environmental body in la belle Province. Penny Davey became the first woman to be elected President of the Ontario Pollution Control Equipment Association in 1995 and Pat Lachmaniuk was elected the 1996/1997 Chair of the Ontario Water Works Association. She was succeeded by Judy MacDonald, while Laurie Lotimer headed the Ontario Water Works Equipment Association. Once rarities at such conferences, women, in fact, were dominant at the Ottawa meeting, the last such meeting in the old century5. Belated recognition? Yes, but surely a good augury for the new century.

Dusanka Filipovic, P.Eng. (centre), an award-winning inventor, was believed to be the first person ever to serve on the boards of both the OWWA and WEAO at the same time. Photo taken as she won the PEO's Engineering Medal in 1991. Gordana Nikolic, P.Eng., (left) and Tom Davey (right).

There seemed to be few women engineers when I was approached to write a 30 minute film in 1987 to commemorate 100 years of Canadian engineering. The film was finished on time and within budget and first screened at Toronto's Royal York Hotel before being shown across Canada in English and French. Its title? The Invisible Profession. Then, as now, the title regrettably, remains appropriate.

The accomplishments have been considerable but yes, there remains much more to be done. Our environmental budgetary needs ­ for new infrastructure, restoration, remediation and new construction ­ remain the orphan of government spending. Projected costs, merely to rehabilitate existing infrastructure, have been estimated in excess of our federal deficit, posing new challenges for environmental professionals as the 21st century unfolds.

1ES&E, November 1998.

2Geoff Scott became the second Canadian WEF President in 1979, while Rod Holme of Earth Tech Canada, completed his term as AWWA President in Chicago in June 1999.

3Library of Congress catalogue card No. 70-151172.

4There was no federal environment ministry until BC's Jack Davis became Canada's first federal Environment Minister.

5ES&E's June 1999 issue, page 10 (

Copyright Tom Davey, all rights reserved.