Improving Water Quality in 19th Century Massachusetts

Posted March 25th, 2014 by Nora Murphy

A recent MIT news spotlight on research for detecting bacteria brought to mind 19th century research on water quality in Massachusetts.

05.18.10.01_Ellen_edit_300In the 1880s MIT chemist Ellen Swallow Richards, in collaboration with faculty member Dr. Thomas Drown, undertook a multi-year, comprehensive survey of the Massachusetts water supplies for the State Board of Health. The results included definitive information about the flow of rivers, analysis of the chemicals in the water, and high and low water marks. The most significant outcome was the creation of a ‘normal chlorine’ map of the Commonwealth’s water supplies. The varying amounts of chlorine in the water samples taken from Massachusetts’ rivers revealed the extent of man-made pollution in the Commonwealth. The findings lead to the establishment in Massachusetts of the first water-quality standards in the U.S.

Ellen Swallow Richards was chemist to the Massachusetts Board of Health from 1872 to 1875 and water analyst from 1887 to 1897, and an advocate for sanitary water and safe cooking standards throughout her life.

To examine the papers of Ellen Swallow Richards, and to learn more about and MIT’s long history of research on sanitary chemistry and food technology, contact the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections. Additional information about Mrs. Richards and her scientific contributions are available online.

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