“Don’t know much about history…”

by Michael J. McGuire

With apologies to the legendary Sam Cooke and his 1958 hit song, “Wonderful World.”

The fact is that environmental engineers and scientists who are practicing today know very little about the history of their profession.  Heaven knows there is plenty of stuff for us to learn so that we are proficient in our field.  We straddle the fields of microbiology, chemistry, sociology, public administration, business administration, public health, engineering (all areas) and lots of others.  However, if we do not know about the lessons of history, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes and re-invent the successes.  How many of us have seen articles in professional journals that have spent a lot of money redoing a piece of research without referencing the original paper?  I am not talking about replicating research, I mean redoing something in ignorance of the original work.

Learning about the giants in our field also gives us hope that we can discover significant advances and develop the courage to implement them.  However, what we mostly hear from our colleagues when one of the giants in our history is mentioned is something like this:  “Fuller, oh yeah, that’s the award that Sally, Christine and Charlie got from AWWA a few years ago.  What did he do again?”  I will cover George Warren Fuller in a later article, but if you would like more information about him, check out the Wikipedia article that I wrote.

Instead, I want to introduce the reader to Moses Nelson Baker.  In his landmark publication The Quest for Pure Water which was originally published in 1948 and reprinted in 1981 by the American Water Works Association, he wrote the definitive early history of drinking water treatment.  I never knew Baker who died in 1955 when he was 91 years old.  I had no idea that I would become a devoted reader of Baker in his role as the author of Quest but also in his role as editor of Engineering News and Engineering News-Record.  I did feel a connection to him when his reprinted book, Quest, was packaged with a companion book bringing the history of drinking water treatment up to date—at least up to 1981.  I knew the editor of the second volume, Michael J. Tarras, and I knew several of the authors of the chapters in Volume II.  A. Eugene Bowers was my boss from 1979 to 1984 at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.  Dr. J. K. G. Silvey (or Doc Silvey as we called him) helped us isolate a severe taste and odor problem in Lake Mathews, California in 1979.  My research group at Metropolitan shared our extensive findings on chloramines in the early 1980s with George Clifford White who included some of our work in his many publications on chlorine treatment.

One day while doing research for my book, The Chlorine Revolution, I was jerked from the present back 65 years.  I had been collecting old books on drinking water treatment and found the name of Moses N. Baker on the inside front cover of one of the books I had just purchased.  In the Author’s Preface to Quest, Baker described how all of his books and pamphlets (many of them rare) were given to AWWA who transferred them to the library of the United Engineering Societies in New York City.  AWWA was headquartered in New York City at the time and had no room to store Baker’s extensive collection of source materials.  The plate on the inside cover of Allen Hazen’s classic work The Filtration of Public Water-Supplies, first edition, first thousand, published by John Wiley & Sons in 1895 stated:  The Moses Nelson Baker Collection on Water Purification Presented to the Engineering Societies Library by the American Water Works Association 1945.  Sadly, Baker’s incredible collection of books was dispersed to the four corners of the globe after the closure of the United Engineering Societies library in 1998.  I am honored to own a copy of Hazen’s seminal work and I feel strongly connected to the history of my profession to know that Hazen’s book was used by Baker when he wrote Quest.

Moses N. Baker, as editor of Engineering News-Record, was largely responsible for disseminating information about advances in water treatment to engineers and scientists from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.  He lived in New Jersey and knew John L. Leal (another giant in the field) and George Warren Fuller quite well.  We know from surviving records that he served on committees with both men and he attended conferences with them.  He did not co-author publications with either man but he referenced their writings extensively in Quest.  Unfortunately, Baker, Leal and Fuller did not keep personal journals, so it is difficult to know their exact relationships.  However, through a daisy-chain of colleagues, collaborators, and co-authors, I feel a strong connection to them and to what happened during the late 1800s to the early 1900s.  I feel compelled to be the chronicler of that period so that succeeding generations of engineers and scientists will feel a similar connection.  By connecting to this incredibly creative period where a high degree of courage was needed to make significant advances in public health, I hope that drinking water professionals following me will not forget where we all came from.

So, my premise is that the current generations of environmental engineers and scientists do not know much about the history of their field.  Let me know if you think I am wrong.  Also, if you have a burning interest in the history of drinking water and wastewater control and treatment, let me know.  I would like to start a group on LinkedIn to explore ideas and make links from the lessons of the past to what is happening today.

About safedrinkingwaterdotcom

McGuire is an environmental engineer and writer. He has worked in the drinking water community for over 40 yrs
This entry was posted in Information, Opinion and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to “Don’t know much about history…”

  1. Dr T K Sinha ,Scientist says:

    AGREE WITH YOU Mr .Michael J. McGuire.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Mike – certainly count me in. One of my prize possessions is a copy of the 1832 letter of Chester Averill to the Mayor of the city of Schenectady NY, “Facts Regarding the Disinfecting Power of Chlorine”.

    I guess this is the occupational hazard of getting gray hair
    Chuck Haas

  3. Chad Seidel says:

    Count me in too! We certainly need to build upon the shoulders of those before us, and what great shoulders they are. We just need to know about them. Perhaps simply developing a history lesson module for professors to use at the beginning of their W/WW classes would be a good start. I don’t recall seeing any of that in my undergraduate or graduate coursework.

  4. Paul Værlien says:

    My great grandfather…

  5. Rob Ryan says:

    Please include me in this group. My Intro to Env Eng class always includes an (albeit brief) discussion of Fowler, Ardern and Locket, and John Snow. Most of the students are fascinated by this because up to this point, they assumed we always knew this stuff. I really like the idea of a full module on water and wastewater history.

    Rob R

  6. Ed Morse says:

    Please include me. Ive spent a career in environmental work and water supply and I’ve just completed the manuscript for a book on the history of drinking water in Wisconsin.

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