Wolman Begins Investigating Water and Sewage Systems Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Abel Wolman’s scientific investigations exposed the dangers of municipal water and sewage pollution and contributed significantly to modernizing water management, both throughout the United States and globally.

Summary of Event

Prior to his death in 1989, Abel Wolman had long been recognized as one of the most distinguished sanitary engineers in the United States and an authority on water standards, water pollution, and water management. His major contributions to these fields of expertise—the introduction of scientific methods of chlorination, the fluoridation of water supplies, the design of improved water- and sewage-treatment facilities, the scientific analysis of water resources, and the initiation of research into national water resources—were nearly all introduced or refined between the 1930’s and the late 1950’s. [kw]Wolman Begins Investigating Water and Sewage Systems (1930’s) [kw]Water and Sewage Systems, Wolman Begins Investigating (1930’s) [kw]Sewage Systems, Wolman Begins Investigating Water and (1930’s) Pollution;water Public health concerns;water quality Sanitation;water supply Water;pollution Sewage systems [g]United States;1930’s: Wolman Begins Investigating Water and Sewage Systems[07450] [c]Environmental issues;1930’s: Wolman Begins Investigating Water and Sewage Systems[07450] [c]Health and medicine;1930’s: Wolman Begins Investigating Water and Sewage Systems[07450] Wolman, Abel Whipple, George C. Sedgwick, William Thompson Remsen, Ira Welch, William Henry

Because of the profound changes affecting the nation’s infrastructure during these years, sanitary engineers—quite aside from effects of the Great Depression, the massive industrialization of World War II, and the unprecedented affluence that marked the country’s growth beginning in the 1950’s—were presented with a sequence of novel problems. Principal among these challenges were the enormous growth in the U.S. population, the shift from a predominantly rural to an overwhelmingly urban society, the physical expansion of cities through rapid suburbanization, the wastage of water resources, and increases in the amounts and kinds of water pollution.

These problems had arisen despite the progress made by Wolman’s predecessors. Wolman, indeed, was foremost in acknowledging the strides taken by engineers and sanitarians, particularly during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, in improving the quality of water supplies and the treatment of sewage. Still earlier, a general recognition of water’s critical role in “public health” (an expression coined in the nineteenth century) and in economic growth had been broadened dramatically when deadly epidemics of cholera, typhoid, and malaria were directly correlated with impure water. Behind this discovery lay sanitation movements initiated primarily in London and Paris between 1832 and the 1880’s by such people as Edwin Chadwick, John Simon, John Snow, Florence Nightingale, A. J. B. Parent Du Chatelet, and Eugene Belgrand.

Wolman took more immediate instruction, however, from men who, as he entered his profession, dominated the fields of water quality and sewage treatment and the applications of those fields to public health. The distinguished bacteriologist William Thompson Sedgwick, who modernized the public health services of Massachusetts, was one of Wolman’s mentors. George C. Whipple, who had closely studied the taste and odors of the municipal water supplies of Boston and New York City, was another, as was Ira Remsen, a world-class chemist who likewise made contributions to water analysis. Sedgwick, Whipple, and Remsen, in company with William Henry Welch, were associated at one time with The Johns Hopkins University, Wolman’s alma mater. These men were among the influences that led to the founding of the American Water Works Association, an organization that Wolman would lead beginning in 1942.

Wolman’s career commenced with his studies of stream pollution in 1913. Thereafter, he combined research with practical applications of his knowledge until the early 1970’s, when advancing age curtailed—although it did not end—his commitments. Even before the peak of his activities from the 1930’s until the mid-1960’s, he effected significant changes in several important areas of concern to the sanitary engineer. For example, in 1917 he introduced the rational loading of water-filter plants to improve the removal of bacteria. The following year, his studies on chlorine absoption provided the basis for subsequent chlorination practice in municipal filtration plants, a procedure that until then had been haphazard and unscientific. Experts noted that this accomplishment alone had a more profound effect on public health than any other single improvement in water management.

Although Wolman’s professional operations took him variously to Boston, New York City, Richmond, Kansas City, Portland, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., his base of operations was in Baltimore. As a Johns Hopkins graduate, he spent more than forty years, first as lecturer, then as professor, in the university’s School of Public Health and Hygiene, but in no sense was he narrowly academic. During the 1920’s and early 1930’s, for example, he assumed the editorships of three of his profession’s leading journals: the Journal of the American Waterworks Association, the American Journal of Public Health, and the Manual of Water Works Practice. Almost simultaneously, he chaired the Public Health Engineering Section of the American Public Health Association, the Potomac River Flood Control Committee, the Conference of State Sanitary Engineers, and the Maryland State Planning Commissions. In addition, he served privately as consulting engineer to the Baltimore County Metropolitan District, the state of New Jersey (in regard to a U.S. Supreme Court case), and the city of Baltimore (in regard to water supply, sewerage, and refuse disposal). By 1934, Wolman officially directed ten major state and national commissions or committees engaged in resolving water-supply problems.

In the 1930’s, Wolman continued to do excellent work in a broad range of areas, among them water resources, water quality and treatment, water planning and policy, and comprehensive planning for improvements to the human environment. Specific examples of his contributions across these fields are legion. From 1931 until 1970, as consulting engineer to the Baltimore City Department of Works, he helped make that city’s water supply one of the purest and most palatable in the country, and the Montebello Waterworks became an international showpiece.

In addition, from 1940 to 1964, Wolman was called to serve the Bethlehem Steel Corporation’s Bethlehem Steel Corporation huge Sparrows Point steelworks and shipbuilding facilities, given their immense capacities for polluting the lower Baltimore Harbor, the Patapsco River, and the Chesapeake Bay. For industrial and domestic purposes—Bethlehem employed thirty thousand people, many of whom lived in a company community—the corporation used 185 million gallons of water per day, much of it drawn through wells from underground aquifers. With increasing use by Baltimore’s growing population and by its expanding industries, these aquifers were becoming dangerously depleted, as well as polluted. Because Bethlehem, like most industrial water users, had no easily defined standards for the water it used, Wolman undertook to determine such standards while searching for new sources of supply.

Wolman’s analysis indicated that both local and distant underground substitutes were inadequate for Bethlehem’s requirements, as were Baltimore’s own potable and raw water supplies. In the circumstances, his solution was a novel one. He ascertained that Baltimore’s Back Bay Sewage Treatment plant yielded effluent of between 85 and 165 million gallons a day. The effluent, moreover, served no useful purposes and produced no revenue. Not least, it was inexpensive and was within easy transmission distance of Bethlehem’s facilities. On Wolman’s recommendation, therefore, Bethlehem contracted with the city of Baltimore to receive a maximum of 50 million gallons daily (subsequently raised to 100 million gallons daily) of the city’s treated effluent. Bethlehem likewise absorbed all the costs of building, maintaining, and operating the works essential to handling this supply.

The solution of this one problem led Wolman into investigations of related problems. The treated sewage effluent being provided by the city of Baltimore to Bethlehem Steel contained a high—and, for Bethlehem’s purposes, harmful—chloride concentration. Consequently, an additional year of study was focused on the entire Baltimore sewer system in order to locate the sources of chloride pollution, a subject about which little was known in the early 1940’s. Wolman’s investigations finally traced the infusions of chloride to Baltimore’s industrial sections, where there were firms engaged in meat pickling, meat packing, and the salt pickling of hides. Additional pollutants were traced to saltwater discharges from water-softening plants and, not least, to the infiltration of harbor waters into sewer breaks in low-lying areas. Having previously upgraded Baltimore’s own water supply to conditions of excellence, Wolman thus had further instigated a review of the city’s sewer system and had established an effective, early method for locating sources of pollution.

As a participant in the first meetings of the Federation of Sewage Works Association in 1940, Wolman alerted this constituency to the increasing dangers of pollution, particularly in the nation’s rivers and streams, and to the wide and dangerous variations in the application of water standards that seemed justified both by science and by law. To address this problem, he proposed a search for answers to a series of questions about the quantitative bases for water standards promulgated in the United States, about what principles should dominate policy in regard to these standards, about whether universal standards for effluents were desirable, about the results of the installation of sewage-treatment plants on stream cleanliness, and about the epidemiological aspects of sewage treatment.

In large part because of Wolman, all these questions would occupy the agendas of thousands of communities—including a dozen major American cities that he would help directly—over the next decades. These questions would also later inform Wolman’s influential 1962 Report to the National Academy of Sciences: Water Resources, as well as water planning and policy decisions in numerous countries where he served as a consultant, among them Israel, Ceylon, and many Latin American cities and states.


Wolman’s engineering tasks, research, and accomplishments encompassed nearly every aspect of water management. He revised standards for the performance of mechanical filtration plants, improved water-quality tests, made analyses of the degree and nature of bacterial removal in filtration plants, evaluated the effects of water storage in open reservoirs, applied statistical methods to the evaluation of water-supply quality, suggested improvements for sandbed filtration, eradicated unpleasant tastes and odors from water in various districts, defined sewage pollution in several bays and rivers, warned of the continuing menace of typhoid in water, and constantly urged funding for water research and the training of sanitary and hydraulic engineers. A dozen cities, half a dozen states, and several major agencies of the federal government drew heavily on his expertise from the Great Depression and World War II through the 1970’s. He published continuously, in reports and papers usually readable by laypersons as well as by professionals. Much as Gifford Pinchot popularized the cause of conservation in the United States, Wolman educated public leaders in the vital and manifold importance of water and environmental sanitation to life and good health. Pollution;water Public health concerns;water quality Sanitation;water supply Water;pollution Sewage systems

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Briggs, Peter. Water: The Vital Essence. New York: Harper & Row, 1967. A clear survey that provides sound background for understanding the importance of coping with water pollution. Emphasis is on the United States, but Briggs also deals with the condition of the worldwide water supply. Chapter notes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cech, Thomas V. Principles of Water Resources: History, Development, Management, and Policy. 2d ed. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2005. Comprehensive handbook detailing the history of water management policy. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duffy, John. A History of Public Health in New York City, 1625-1866. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1968. A splendid scholarly study that is rich in essential nineteenth century background on urban sanitary conditions and their relationship to health. Wolman’s immediate predecessors, as well as Wolman himself, were still trying to alleviate many of the generic sanitary-public health problems relating to water supply. Clearly written and essential for comprehending both specific and general problems that were still mounting a century later. Ample notes and useful bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Melosi, Martin V. Garbage in the Cities: Refuse and Reform, 1880-1980. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1981. Although the concentration in this study is on the politics of cleansing cities, there are ample discussions of sanitary engineers such as Wolman. Useful for covering much background of the period during which Wolman was active. Chapter notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Pollution and Reform in American Cities, 1870-1930. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980. A well-written analysis of the subject. Substantially updates Duffy’s work in regard to relevant water-pollution problems that Wolman was to encounter when he worked in many U.S. cities. Good chapter notes, bibliography, and index.
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    xlink:type="simple">Nesson, Fern L. Great Waters: A History of Boston’s Water Supply. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for Brandeis University, 1983. An excellent analysis of the importance of engineers in devising politically acceptable solutions to complex water problems. Good notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nobile, Philip, and John Deedy, eds. The Complete Ecology Handbook. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972. Clearly written and useful as an introduction to general pollution problems. Chapter 2 deals with water pollution in rivers, lakes, and streams. Useful bibliographies, glossary, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weidner, Charles H. Water for the City. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1974. An extensive history of New York City’s water problems from the city’s origins until the 1940’s. Wolman was an important influence on many aspects of the city’s water quality and water planning problems, so this book illuminates interesting aspects of his career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, Gilbert, ed. Water, Health, and Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969. An extensive collection of Wolman’s papers that covers his life and work through 1969. Provides a detailed summary of Wolman’s busy career as well as a chronological list of his published works. Indispensable for grasping Wolman’s intellectual abilities and his influences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolman, Abel. “The Metabolism of Cities.” In Cities. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966. Part of a collection of Scientific American articles, this is an excellent summation of Wolman’s views on urban pollution, including water and sewage problems. Charts and graphs.

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Categories: History