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BACTERIOLOGY AND WATER
HILST the Hamburg cholera disaster of
1892 will certainly rank in the annals of epidemiology as one of the great catastrophes of recent times, it will also be memorable as one of the most instructive which has ever taken place.
It is perhaps not unnatural that this should be the case, for since the last European epidemic of importance our study of the principles of sanitation has received a new impetus, and this impetus must be in great part ascribed to the science of bacteriology, which has sprung into existence within the past two decades. We have now no longer to confront mysterious and unknown morbific material, but have been brought face to face with some of the most dreaded foes of the human race. We are no longer groping, as it were, in the dark, but have a definite object, in the shape of well-recognised micro-organisms associated with specific zymotic diseases, for our common crusade.
But it is the light which has been thrown for
the first time upon numerous intricate problems connected with the sanitary aspects of public water-supplies which constitutes not the least important of the many services rendered by bacteriology to the public. Perhaps one of the most striking of these may be considered the insight which it has afforded into the value of various processes of water-purification, furnishing us with the most subtle and searching tests, surpassing in delicacy those of the most refined chemical methods.
Thus for years the processes of sand-filtration, as practised at waterworks in dealing with river and other surface waters, were regarded by chemical experts as of but little or no value, because, on chemical analysis, but little or no difference was found to exist between the filtered and unfiltered samples respectively. Water engineers started this method of water treatment in London as far back as the year 1839, with no other object than the distribution of a water bright and clear on delivery, but, unknown to themselves, they were carrying out a system of water-purification the nature and extent of which has been left to the infant science of bacteriology to unravel and reveal.
It was in the year 1885 that Dr. Koch's new bacteriological water-tests were introduced, and
systematically applied for the first time to the London water-supply by Professor Percy Frankland, and the entirely unexpected result obtained, that whereas the River Thames water at Hampton contained as many as 1,644 micro-organisms in about twenty drops, this water, after passing through the sand-filters, possessed as few as thirteen in the same number of drops. The remarkable purification effected in the treatment of the water was thus very clearly shown, and an entirely new aspect was given to the processes of sand-filtration.
The importance of these results was quickly appreciated by the official water-examiner, the late Sir Francis Bolton, and at the request of the Local Government Board regular monthly bacteriological examinations of the London watersupply were conducted.
It is amusing to recall that, at the time when these results were first published, the public, instead of being reassured by these facts, were greatly alarmed, and it is a matter of history that the mere demonstration of the presence of micro-organisms in drinking-water caused a fall in the price of several of the water companies' stocks !
These investigations, which have since been confirmed by others both in this country and
on the Continent, have clearly shown, then, that sand-filtration, when carefully carried out, offers a most remarkable and obstinate barrier to the passage of microbes, and there was every justification in presuming that if disease organisms should at any time be present in the raw untreated water, they would also undergo a similar fate, as there was no reasonable ground for supposing that they would behave any differently · from the ordinary harmless water bacteria.
But this was a hypothesis only, and, however satisfactory experiments in this direction made in the laboratory might prove, there was always the uncertainty attaching to a fact which had not passed through the ordeal of practical experience.
The answer to this searching and all-important question has been furnished in the most conclusive manner by the history of the cholera epidemic in Hamburg and Altona respectively in the year 1892.
These two cities are both dependent upon the River Elbe for their water-supply, but whereas in the case of Hamburg the intake is situated above the city, the supply for Altona is abstracted below Hamburg after it has received the sewage of a population of close upon 800,000 persons. The Hamburg water was, therefore, to start with, relatively pure when compared with that des
tined for the use of Altona. But what was the fate of these two towns as regards cholera ? Situated side by side, absolutely contiguous, in fact, with nothing in their surroundings or in the nature of their population to especially distinguish them, in the one cholera swept away thousands, whilst in the other the scourge was scarcely felt; in Hamburg the deaths from cholera amounted to 1,250 per 100,000, and in Altona to but 221 per 100,000 of the population. So clearly defined, moreover, was the path pursued by the cholera, that although it pushed from the Hamburg side right up to the boundary line between the two cities, it there stopped, this being so striking that in one street, which for some distance marks the division between these cities, the Hamburg side was stricken down with cholera, whilst that belonging to Altona remained free. The remarkable fact was brought to light that in those houses supplied with the Hamburg water cholera was rampant, whilst in those on the Altona side and furnished with the Altona water not one case occurred.
We have seen that the Hamburg water, to start with, was comparatively pure when compared with the foul liquid abstracted from the Elbe by Altona, but whereas in the one case the water was submitted to exhaustive and careful