Soloid Water and Sewage Analysis Case (c. 1900)
The 19th century saw a great deal of innovation and discoveries in the field of public health and more precisely in the case of water treatment. Prior to the mid 19th century the importance of having a large quantity of fresh water was always seen as vital for the well being of a population, but the means of judging the quality of the water were not so well developed.
The aesthetic appearance of water had for a long time being the most important aspect of water analysis. Crude filtration systems were put in place but as cities became more populated and the Industrial Age brought upon further sources of heavy pollution steps had to be taken to greatly improve the current system.
The mid 19th century also saw the development of scientific knowledge around the propagation of diseases through water. Dr. Jon Snow famously made his case when in 1854 he broke a London water pump which he rightly believed was responsible for a specific epidemic of cholera in the city. His action effectively put a halt to the contamination. Prior to his discovery numerous theories existed on the spread of cholera, including atmospheric imbalances or even parasitic insects entering through the mouth. Louis Pasteur soon followed when he demonstrated the principles of infection by micro organisms. Water was then considered one of the first cause of infantile mortality, which in certain neighbourhoods could reach 50%, as well as the carrier of different diseases such as typhoid fever or dysentery.
Dilution was seen as the key to prevent water contamination, and so in many municipalities along the Great Lakes the sewers were discharged close to the water intake. In Sarnia for example the distance between the two was of only 45 meters in 1912.
In Canada the legislation of water management most often followed disasters, for example important fires of epidemics. Kingston only began providing a public access to water in 1849 following a cholera outbreak and Hamilton in 1854 after a series of fires. The Municipal Waterworks Act was introduced in 1882 and allowed the province to promote the building of water treatment infrastructure.
By the turn of the 20th century, scientists were discovering that turbidity – the haziness of water- could be a sign of pathogens. In light of these new ideas governments started to put more effort into the analysis and treatment of water. It is during this time that chlorination was introduced as an effective method to kill harmful waterborne bacteria. This is where our “Soloid water and sewage analysis case” was introduced.
This case was developed by Dr. John Clough Thresh (1850-1932) who was regarded as an important pioneer in the field of water treatment in the early 20th century. Thresh was born in Wakefield, England and first graduated in chemistry at the University of London. He chose to subsequently orient himself toward medicine when he realized that when appearing as an expert witness of chemistry and pharmacy in front of courts, his opinion was often discounted by medical witnesses of considerably less knowledge than himself. With this particular background, he chose to orient his career towards public health where he published many works namely on infantile mortality, hospital conditions, working class housing or the preservation of food. But it is in the field of water analysis where he found his true calling. Thresh became Medical County officer in Essex and lecturer at many colleges including King’s College in London. His work on the effects of water on health and its purification process became in turn worldwide references.
The case contains a copy of “A simple method of Water analysis”, authored by Thresh and which was meant as a resource for county medical officers such as himself. The book was also adopted by the military when public health policies began to be implemented namely in the First World War. The hygiene policies of the Canadian army for example proved so successful that it is today considered that the Great War was the first important conflict in which less lives were lost to disease than to enemy fire.
As the name suggest the process is rather simple and based on the use of “Soloid” chemicals. “Soloid” was a type of trademarked compressed chemical in this case manufactured by Burroughs Wellcome & Co. It also contains the necessary instruments to conduct the analysis. The process was quite advanced for its time and allows measuring of the turbidity and color, odour, reaction, residue left on evaporation, free ammonia, chlorides, nitrites, hardness, metallic impurities and oxygen absorbed.
This object represents an historic milestone in the development of public health as it gave local administration a body of knowledge as well as the suitable tools to lead a successful analysis of their water sources and guarantee the relative safety of its population. Unfortunately very little information is available today on Dr. Thresh, but his legacy can be appreciated worldwide.
Curator, Museum of Health Care in Kingston, Ontario.