Perhaps no other advancement of public health has been as significant. Yet, few know the intriguing story of a simple idea—disinfecting public water systems with chlorine—that in just 100 years has saved more lives than any other single health development in human history.


At the turn of the 20th century, most scientists and doctors called the addition of chloride of lime, a poisonous chemical, to public water supplies not only a preposterous idea but also an illegal act—until a courageous physician, working with the era’s greatest sanitary engineer, proved it could be done safely and effectively on a large scale.

This is the first book to tell the incredible true story of the first use of chlorine to disinfect a city water supply, in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1908. This important book also corrects misinformation long-held in the historical record about who was responsible for this momentous event, giving overdue recognition to the true hero of the story—an unflagging champion of public health, Dr. John L. Leal.


While doing research on a paper in 2005 on the history of drinking water disinfection, I was intrigued by the personalities, beliefs and prejudices associated with drinking water treatment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I wondered why drinking water disinfection had not been used until 1908 when it could have saved innumerable lives that were lost to cholera, typhoid fever and diarrheal diseases.  In some early research, I found that controversy existed over who was actually responsible for the decision to use chlorine on such a large scale.  Dr. John L. Leal of Paterson, New Jersey appeared to be the one who made it happen, but most of the histories of chlorine use in drinking water listed another person.  The Chlorine Revolution settles the argument in Dr. Leal’s favor based on the sworn testimony of the principals involved.

FOREWARD – Written by Michael E. Campana, PhD

Many years ago, an engineer colleague told me that if I ever wanted to thank one person for the excellent state of public health in the USA, make sure I thanked an engineer. When I presented a puzzled mien, he proceeded to explain the role of the engineering profession in developing methods for treating wastewater and disinfecting drinking water. I certainly understood the difficulty in, and importance of, treating wastewater, but I scoffed at the disinfection aspect, especially the difficulty. `What’s the big deal with disinfecting the drinking water? Just add some chlorine,’ I replied. He responded with a glare that I suspect I’d given to some of my students over the years, and proceeded to lecture me on drinking water disinfection with chlorine. Little did I realize that, lo these many years later, I would be penning the foreword to a book titled, ‘The Chlorine Revolution: Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives’, and being amazed at and enthralled by the wealth of information in Dr. Michael J. McGuire’s book. Suffice it to say that in writing this book, Mike added two more hats to his engineering one – those of historian and detective. The book is meticulously researched and documented and well-written.

Even I, as a non-engineer (hydrogeologist), have known Mike by reputation for a number of years. After all, he is a fellow `water wonk’ and (unlike me) a member of the National Academy of Engineering, an organization that does not suffer fools. I first met him several years ago when we both served on a National Research Council committee, and that in-person experience did nothing but enhance his reputation and my perception of his expertise.

Whence the origins of this book? It is an outgrowth of a paper Mike published in the Journal of the American Water Works Association in 2006, “Eight Revolutions in the History of U.S. Drinking Water Disinfection”. The title reminded me of my aforementioned comment disparaging the difficulty of drinking water disinfection. If a person like Mike sees `eight revolutions’ then I must be missing something. For once, my hunch was right. I had missed something about disinfection.

As Mike states in his Preface, the article was well-received, but he was not satisfied:

The first revolution fascinated me. What was the decision-making process behind the first continuous use of chlorine in the United States? Why was chlorination of a water supply first accomplished in Jersey City, New Jersey? Who were the people primarily responsible for implementing chlorination? What in their experience led them to take such extraordinary steps? What were the consequences of their actions? These questions led me to begin research for this book and to explore in depth this historic era in drinking water disinfection.

After reading the above, I was hooked. I wanted to learn what the `big deal’ was. After all, I knew enough about drinking water chlorination to know that it entails adding a poison to something about to be ingested by humans. You’d better have the biology, chemistry, and engineering right.

Now comes the surprising part. Despite the first sentence of my foreword, it was two men not trained as engineers who played the key roles in the struggle to chlorinate drinking water supplies: Dr. John L. Leal, a medical doctor turned public health and water expert, and George Warren Fuller, an MIT-trained chemist who became the foremost U.S. sanitary engineer before his 40th birthday. Leal was the one who speculated upon the health benefits of chlorinating public water supplies on a continuous basis. His research into bacteriology and the development of germ theory of disease led him to the works of Pasteur, Koch, and others to posit that chlorine dose to drinking water would be the key to drastically reducing or eliminating health threats from typhoid and other waterborne diseases. Fuller’s prodigious engineering skills would implement Leal’s theories; all he had to do was develop a continuous feed system that would safely chlorinate 40 million gallons per day!

Mike’s book goes into incredible detail. The court trials. The `chemophobia’ that was prevalent at the turn of the last century. The pioneering bacteriologists. John Snow and his `cholera map’. The understanding of what caused disease (no, not `miasmas’). Even the improvements to the microscope that led to advances in bacteriology do not escape Mike’s sleuthing.

Recalling the first sentence of this foreword, I must now confess that for years I have been telling my students whom to thank. But now I know a lot more: the whole story and exactly whom to thank. And I know exactly what I will tell the students in my US Water Management class tomorrow morning.

‘The Chlorine Revolution: Water Disinfection and the Fight to Save Lives’ is an extraordinary book telling a remarkable story. Engineer, water wonk, or not, you’ll be glad you read it.

I am.

Michael E. Campana, PhD
Past President, American Water Resources Association
Professor of Hydrogeology and Water Resources Management



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