Drinking Water and Disease: The strange partners that shaped Philadelphia

Part 1: Fairmount Water Works — The right answer for the wrong problem 

For the last two years, we’ve all seen how an epidemic changes a society. From the complex, grueling efforts of science to understand and prevent COVID to the political aftershocks that continue to shake the world, we have learned how a single pathogen can disrupt normal life and sow chaos. 

There is nothing new, however, about a disease causing social and political change. In Philadelphia there have been two particular periods where epidemics ripped through the community, but each paradoxically led to improved public services — notably new systems for supplying the city with drinking water.   

Yellow Fever Epidemic

In 1793, Philadelphia was decimated by a deadly yellow fever epidemic. Though now largely remembered only as a footnote to the events following the Revolutionary War, in one year the disease killed 10% of the city’s populace. It remains proportionally one of the deadliest public health crises in U.S. history. 

From “Os mosquitos no Pará” by Emil August Göldi, 1905.

It would be more than a century before the vector of this terrifying illness (the so-called yellow fever mosquito Aedes aegypti) was identified. Though we now take it for granted that insects can carry pathogens, this was unknown in the 1790s. Medical science was still plagued with superstition and religious dogma, and the best science of the time followed the “miasma theory” that disease was carried by bad smells. 

The epidemic was traumatic for the city. Efforts to cope ranged from pointless street sweeping to desperate flight. George Washington, then residing in temporary presidential quarters in the temporary capital, was among those who fled the city.  

Though yellow fever remained a horrifying mystery, there was an emerging understanding of some relationship between disease and water. Philadelphians began to see cleanliness — and by extension clean water — as a strategy to combat epidemics. As author Martin Melosi points out in The Sanitary City, “Despite uncertainty in determining disease causation, the correlation between pure water and good health was nevertheless a driving force in dealing with epidemics.” 

Fairmount Water Works

Although it was the political and cultural capital of a new nation, Philadelphia was experiencing severe overcrowding and a deteriorating water supply. In 1797, still reeling from the last epidemic, a group of the “respectable citizens of Philadelphia” formally linked this bad water to yellow fever, petitioning the city to authorize development of a new water system.  

This set the stage for the City Council to form the Joint Committee on Bringing Water to the City — otherwise known as the Watering Committee — a body that would lead the development of a new city water system. After failed attempts to provide water to the city using steam pumps, the Fairmount Water Works became the next solution.  

From “A Geography of Pennsylvania” by Charles B. Trego. Stereotyped by C.W.Murray & Co., 1843.

Built on the banks of the river and powered by the flow of the water itself, the Water Works pumped thousands of gallons of water up to the large reservoir, now the site of the Art Museum. From there, an expanding network of wooden pipes made the water available around the city.  

Ironically, the cleanliness of water was not a factor in the spread of yellow fever. Mosquitoes are agnostic as to the quality of the water in which they breed. It was the drainage of local wetlands — a practice that had its own negative outcomes — that ultimately brought yellow fever under control.  

Nevertheless, the Fairmount Water Works was, in a sense, the “right solution for the wrong problem.” While it had no real impact on yellow fever, availability of an adequate supply of clean water had an immeasurable effect on the city’s quality of life in many other ways, including improved health. Cleaning up the sources of the so-called miasmas — dirt and organic waste — did in fact remove the microbial sources of many other illnesses. 

By 1822, the Philadelphia water system was state of the art, both for engineering and for the nascent science of public health. It would serve the city for another hundred years. The Fairmount Water Works structure, which still stands as an important part of the city’s historical legacy, was also, perhaps, the closing act in the relationship of yellow fever and the city’s water infrastructure.  

However, as the city’s source of water, it would not survive another epidemic almost a century later. 

Fairmount Water Works, Mike Servedio/ANS

Stay tuned for Part 2: Typhus and the birth of the “Bacteriological City.”

Written by Roland Wall, Director of the Patrick Center for Environmental Research at the Academy of Natural Sciences

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