Harper's New Monthly Magazine,  7 (1883–84), 756–64.

Modern Sanitary Engineering

W P Trowbridge




Sanitation, Engineering, Engineers, War, Public Health, Hygiene, Architecture, Disease, Natural Law, Skill, Putrefaction, Gender

    Contends that sanitary engineering is a 'profession in its infancy' which only began to receive 'public interest' with the 'establishment of the Sanitary Commission of the British army in the Crimean war' and then with the formation of the 'Sanitary Commission of our own army during the late war' (756). Indeed, after the civil war the 'School of Mines of Columbia College' became the 'first institution of learning' in America 'to introduce into its curriculum the study of sanitary engineering as a special branch of instruction', although the 'only author of prominence who has published a complete work entitled Sanitary Engineering fails to notice, even by a passing remark, some of the most important subjects which should be included in a complete course of study' (756–57). States that one of the principal 'axioms' of sanitary science is the assumption that 'health is subject to law: not that the laws of health or the causes of disease are so thoroughly understood as to render this an exact science [...] but that ill health and physical as well as mental depression [...] have their special causes, and that enough is known of these causes through modern investigation to warrant special public and private measures for counteracting or preventing them' (757). Claims that the most important question in modern sanitary engineering is 'What shall we do with the sewage?', and condemns the 'apathy of legislators and the prevailing ignorance, even in intelligent communities, regarding matters so vital to public health and prosperity' (758). Goes on to insist that, 'Although not an agreeable subject for public discussion, it must be met', and contends that 'Until some fortunate chemist or inventive engineer shall have furnished the clew to a better solution of the matter, the sewage farm as now practised in a score of towns in England [...] seems to be the only resource'. Now that 'Numerous chemical processes have been tried at great expense' and 'with only partial success', American 'cities and towns must submit to the idea, as well as become accustomed to the existence, of a sewage farm'. (758–59) Above all, though, the 'sewage question, as it is called, must sooner or later demand all the resources of the most skilful engineer' (759). Details the dangers of most current systems of 'house drainage' (760), and suggests that it is 'little less than inhuman for architects and builders to adhere to a system which exposes all—especially women and children, who are most confined in-doors—to the deadly and insidious contaminations of the air of dwellings' with defective plumbing (760–61). Instead, proposes the placing of 'closets, bath-rooms, lavatories, and all other so-called conveniences within an annex, or within impervious walls at the rear of the dwelling', a plan whose 'great advantages were forcibly presented recently by Dr. Hamilton' (761). Also notes that 'It is stated by Huxley that a healthy man gives off through the skin [...] 300 grains of solid matter in 24 hours' which 'makes a large aggregate of animal refuse in a crowded city', and calculates that 'at the rate of one pound for 33 persons in 24 hours, a city of one million inhabitants would thus furnish, imperceptibly, [...] nearly 5500 tons of such solid animal matter per annum' (762).

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