My new book will be published in spring 2013: The Chlorine Revolution: Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives. The book is about a courageous physician and his partnership with the greatest sanitary engineer of the time to plan, build and operate the first, large-scale drinking water disinfection system in the U.S. It is also about a court case that extended over two trials (1906-10) that pitted engineering and scientific experts of the day against one another. The verdict approving the use of chlorine for the Jersey City water supply caused an explosion of its use, which led to the conquest of waterborne disease in the U.S.
While doing research on a 2006 paper for the Journal AWWA on the history of drinking water disinfection, I was intrigued by the personalities, beliefs and prejudices associated with drinking water treatment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I wondered why drinking water disinfection had not been used until 1908 when it could have saved innumerable lives that were lost to cholera, typhoid fever and diarrheal diseases. In some early research, I found that controversy existed over who was actually responsible for the decision to use chlorine on such a large scale. Dr. John L. Leal of Paterson, New Jersey appeared to be the one who made it happen, but most of the histories of chlorine use in drinking water listed another person. The Chlorine Revolution settles the argument in Dr. Leal’s favor based on the sworn testimony of the principals involved.
No other book has investigated this critical event in the history of public health in the U.S. Any mention of Jersey City and the Boonton Reservoir water supply is usually contained in only a few sentences. Certainly, no book or periodical in the last 100 years has published the details of the incredible Jersey City court case that was essential to the successful application of chlorine. This book makes extensive use of the twelve volumes of trial transcripts that have only recently been brought to light. From the transcripts, the most famous chemists, bacteriologists and engineers of the early 20th century presented their opinions in their own words why a “poison” should be used for drinking water treatment.