Clean Water

The rumble of trucks down Westview Road caught my attention late last night. Soon, spot lights cast a daytime glow throughout the area and a jack hammer let everyone know that the street was being opened. I assumed it was a water pipe but since it was “downstream” from my house, I didn’t give it much thought. The construction noise lasted an hour and was done.

Arising this morning, I was nonetheless startled by the brown, carbonated liquid that came surging out of my faucet. Because we get up earlier than most of our neighbors, we haven’t yet had much help in purging the pipes of the air and sediment that are the normal and temporary by-products of water pipes being repaired. Since we normally drink tap water, we don’t keep a big inventory of Poland Springs on hand. Fortunately, there was enough for coffee making and tooth brushing because, despite running the tap for ten minutes, what comes out still has the appearance of weak tea.

This minor disruption once again reminded me that so many things that we absolutely take for granted – like clean, safe-to-drink water flowing from our faucets on demand – are vital to our every day lives and of great convenience. As a student of history, I know that was not always the case. The subject of safe water and public health is of personal interest to me. At St Patrick’s Cemetery, the grave of my mother’s side of the family bears many names but two always catch my eye: “Mary Gorman, 1902-1905” and “Susan Gorman, 1904-1905.” How devastating it must have been for my great grandparents to have lost two young children in the same year. Then someone shared with me the obituary:

GORMAN – The many friends of Mr. and Mrs. Michael Gorman will be pained to learn of their double bereavement in the loss of two children by death yesterday. Susan, aged 1 year and 14 days, and May, aged three years, dying within a few hours of each other, after a brief illness at the home of their parents, 154 Cross Street. Owing to the cause of death, diphtheria, the funeral took place this morning at 10 o’clock in charge of Undertakers J. F. O’Donnell & Sons. Interment was in the Catholic Cemetery.

While I don’t believe that diphtheria is caused or spread by contaminated water, my point is that public health a century ago was an urgent priority and not something taken for granted as is probably the case today. In fact, the understandable concern about disease and illness in the age before modern health care is what made one of Lowell’s core industries, the patent medicine business, such a great success. Men like James C. Ayer, Charles I Hood and Augustin Thompson were not quacks: they were trained pharmacists and doctors who followed the state of the art in the medical profession. The problem was that the “state of the art” at the time wasn’t all that advanced so the efficacy of many of the various concoctions sold was questionable. for instance, Ayer’s Sarsaparilla (introduced in 1859) offered “rapid and complete cures” to such diverse conditions as “ringworm, sores, boils, pimples, ulcers, impurities of the blood, liver complaints, female weaknesses, jaundice, dyspepsia and rheumatism.” Even with the millions spent today by pharmaceutical giants on advertising, such expansive claims of cure fortunately remain a thing of the past.

So the next time you turn on your faucet, take a moment and remember that clean water, clean air, and competent medical care are not constants in life. They are all things to be thankful for.