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Lowell: A Friend of the People The Typhoid Epidemic of 1890-91

Tracking the Disease

Professor Sedgwick's initial report, dated January 9, 1891, included some preliminary findings of his investigation of the sanitary condition of Lowell's water supply, with "special reference to the possible existence in the city water of the organisms which are believed to produce typhoid fever."  Water samples were collected and examined from each ward, from the city's reservoirs, from the filtering gallery and were also taken from the Merrimack River at points both near and above the intake pipes.  Sedgwick continued to make bacteriological examinations of water from locations in the river, the canals, house-taps and wells.

Sedgwick delivered his full report to the Lowell Water Board on April 10, 1891.  For the first time the methods of the laboratory were directly applied to the practical work of a field study.  Two years previous, he had developed techniques for the identification and analysis of micro-organisms in water and sewage.  Sedgwick and his assistant, George McLauthlin, visited every typhoid patient in Lowell to determine the exact beginnings of their symptoms.  In his report, he presented a specific hypothesis that typhoid was a water borne disease and that it had invaded Lowell's drinking supply from a few cases in a village north of the city.

Lowell had long used the Merrimack for drinking water, even though raw sewage was emptied into the river Sedgwick knew that Lowell had five water systems, three of which were drawn directly from the Merrimack.  As this had been the case since 1876, he had to find a reason why a typhoid epidemic broke out in 1890.  He and his assistant found fecal bacteria in abundance in the water supplies and traced the source of infection to an outbreak of typhoid in a neighboring village to the north.


On August 24,1890, a Dr Edwards treated a mill worker at Moore's Wool Scouring Mill in North Chelmsford, for a severe case of typhoid fever.  On September 9, he saw another mill worker who had been ill for three days.  During that time she had continued working at the mill and using the privy, which emptied into Stony Brook.

The total number of cases in North Chelmsford involved nine individuals from three families.  Only four cases appear to have infected the brook, which emptied directly into the Merrimack River. Twenty-four hours after Stony Brook was first infected with the typhoid bacillus, the disease was entering the intake pipe for Lowell's drinking water, less than three miles down river from where the brook entered the Merrimack.

Sedgwick's report concluded with the following remarks,  "...we shall look in vain for any adequate explanation of the constant excess of typhoid fever in Lowell and still more in Lawrence except to the fact that both these cities have constantly distributed to their citizens water, unpurified, drawn from a stream originally pure but now grossly polluted with the crude sewage of several large cities and towns."

After Sedgwick's report, people gave up the idea that running water purified itself and began to understand that typhoid was from microbes in the sewage, not from the sewage itself.  The microbes were not killed by traveling downstream.  Lowell had always had sewage in its drinking water but only had typhoid fever when there was typhoid in a community above the city on the river's route.


A year later, the Annual Report of the Board of Health of the City of Lowell for the year 1891, noted that deaths from typhoid fever had dropped from 123 in 1890 to 77 in 1891.

The Report for 1891 ended with an impassioned plea:  "Danger is as present with us in the daily routine of our peaceful lives as on the battlefield, only that the embodiment of danger is an invisible and intangible germ instead of a fast-flying bullet.  It flows beside us in the river, in our mains, from the taps in our houses; the germ of disease may not be in this pitcherful or in that, but it will find us some day if we continue to use the water which contains it.  About one victim in Lowell is taken daily, and as the average duration of this fever is about a month, there are always 30 persons in this city whose lives are trembling in the balance."

Within several months of Sedgwick's report, the Lowell Water Board voted to give City Engineer George Bowers authority to see what could be done to effect a system of deep driven wells for the city's drinking water supply.  The City appropriated $100,000 for the seven well system and within two years of Sedgwick's report, it was in place.

Professor N. S. Shaler, a geologist at Harvard University, surveyed the land and recommended a location near River Meadow Brook.  Charles Pierce, owner of the Pierce Artesian Well Company of New York, volunteered to find the water.  When one of the pipes reached 35 feet, a pump was attached which began to give out clear, fresh water. William Andrews, the man who gave Brooklyn, N.Y. its famed deep driven well system, sank the additional wells.

The wells, varying in depth from 47 to 67 feet, provided an inexhaustible supply of fresh, clean water for the people of Lowell for many years to come.