Imagine an unseen world whose inhabitants wield immense power. That is the world of micro-organisms, invisible and poorly understood until the late nineteenth century, when advances in microscopy, bacterial science, and sanitary engineering opened a view to scientists and public health authorities.

As scientists grew to understand the role of micro-organisms, they realized that public health depended on an abundant supply of clean water. Improvements in public health were as important as – and interconnected with – the convenience and quality-of-life benefits provided by access to a clean, dependable municipal water supply. The increasing availability of showers, bathtubs, indoor toilets, and washing machines contributed to the reduction in disease and other health problems.

At the 1895 annual meeting of the New England Water Works Association, Desmond Fitzgerald, superintendent of the Western division of the Boston Water Works, made an impassioned plea, expressing the attitude shared by leaders in public health, science, and medicine, who championed the new sciences of sanitary engineering and microbiology:

“…as we progress and find that we can control the quality of the water by our own acts, we realize it is a wicked thing to turn water containing a large amount of organic matter into a city or town for people to drink – children, invalids and people whose constitutions are too weak to overcome the effects of bad water. I think we should realize the responsibility that rests on us as superintendents and engineers to do all that we can to raise the standard; to insist that a city or town should have good water and that they should judiciously spend enough to make it good.”

The Chestnut Hill Biological Laboratory

George Whipple

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