Thursday, December 03, 2009

Water safety, 120 years ago

Portland's recent scare with an E. coli-tainted public water system called to our minds the stories of yesteryear, when untreated water was taken directly from natural sources and unfiltered water--and, really, debris of all kinds--was routinely discharged into said water sources. We've previously shared Esther Pohl Lovejoy's words on the difference the supply of Bull Run water made to the public health of the city when it was brought online in 1895. An example of the hazards of unclean water had been vividly demonstrated just six years before by a young Dr. Kenneth A.J. Mackenzie.

The minutes of a meeting of the Multnomah County Medical Society on June 21, 1889, record Mackenzie's presentation of one of the earliest epidemiological studies in the city:
Dr. Mackenzie presented for discussion the recent epidemic of Typhoid Fever. The abruptness of the outbreak caused him to investigate its source.

There being no efficient Board of Health to refer such cases for investigation, the Doctor upon his own inquiry concluded from the peculiarity of the attack in certain families that the food supply might be the cause of the epidemic. His attention was given to the milk supply, and to his surprise he found that in nearly every instance where the disease existed the supply of milk was derived from one source, that being a dairy near the city, where the gentleman owning said dairy together with his wife, had only a short time previous suffered from typhoid fever.

It was also ascertained that dejecta of these two patients was thrown without any attempt at disinfection into an adjacent creek, the creek running through a pasture frequented by the cows of this dairy.

The Doctor's conclusions were that the cows had imbibed the fever germs and given them off through the milk, or the source of the water supply used by the dairy man for cleansing the milk cans had become poisoned by germs of the disease, thus contaminating the milk distributed by him.....

[The Doctor] hoped that the Society would take this as an initiative to institute proceedings, to arouse the authorities, to take steps to improve the sanitary condition of the city.
Accordingly, the city opened Bull Run in 1895 and the state finally passed legislation establishing local county boards of health in 1903.

Interesting, and true to Portland medical politics, Mackenzie's presentation and call to action were not without controversy. Fellow Society member C.C. Strong, MD, accused Mackenzie of withholding information and endangering the health of the city's citizens; Mackenzie was also charged with following the trail of contamination so that he could be the first to offer his services to the infected. Mackenzie countered that he acted on the basis of legal advice, and that he was unwilling to take the matter on alone. As a result, a committee of members was appointed to make recommendations to city officials on the removal of the source of contamination.

Ah, how far we've come. Portland Mayor Sam Adams plans to ask the citizenry for their thoughts on how the city should handle any future water contamination scares. Twitter, anyone?

1 comment:

Sam said...

Great post providing historical background on Portland's water safety issues. Thank you. Sam