George Whipple, the Chestnut Hill Biological Laboratory, and Water Safety

It’s hard for those of us in developed countries in the 21st century to realize how clean, potable water radically changed life in 19th century cities. Rather than being breeding grounds for cholera and other water-born diseases, people could live in relatively healthy conditions. Childhood mortality dropped dramatically.

In the U.S., one of the key people in understanding water safety, including its microbiological aspects, was George C. Whipple, who was the head of the Chestnut Hill Biological Laboratory–the first laboratory dedicated to the microbiology of drinking water:

Apparently, Dr. Whipple was quite the cut up (in wheelbarrow)
(from here)

Whipple’s work, Microscopy of Drinking Water, was used well into the 20th century, in part because of detailed drawings like this:


What’s amazing is the actual Chestnut Hill Biological Laboratory. Given its importance you would assume it was a massive complex. Well, not so much:

(from here)

I think this is only slightly larger than my bedroom. Here’s what it looked like inside:

(No idea what the rope hanging from the ceiling is for)

Using equipment similar to this from the Waterworks Museum (these aren’t originals, but would essentially be the tools Whipple had to work with), Whipple and other microbiologists were able to keep the water supply safe:



Pretty remarkable. For more information, click here.

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5 Responses to George Whipple, the Chestnut Hill Biological Laboratory, and Water Safety

  1. newenglandbob says:

    Isn’t there a light attached to the end of the rope hanging from the ceiling that kind of shows its purpose?

  2. Bayesian Bouffant, FCD says:

    How to Photograph Science Researchers at Work
    Oddly, there is no mention of wheelbarrows.

  3. Bayesian Bouffant, FCD says:

    newenglandbob is correct, that’s a work light hanging over the table. The light shade is in front of the row of glass bottles. The knot in the cord is a height adjustment. The bulb is 60 W.

    • newenglandbob says:

      Yeah, but how many hours are left in the 60 watt bulb before it burns out?

  4. fcc says:

    “…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.”

    Goddamn socialist.

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