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

The Lowell Epidemic of 1890

The summer of 1890 saw a normal number of typhoid fever cases in Lowell. During September the city experienced a slight increase. It wasn't until November, however, that physicians and city officials noticed an alarming increase in the number of cases and related deaths.

At a regular meeting of the Lowell Board of Health on December 2,1890, Agent Bates reported, "that there has been 122 cases of typhoid fever reported during the month of November." The number of typhoid cases that month eventually resulted in 28 deaths.

The large number of cases of typhoid was brought to the attention of the State Board of Health in late November. The purity of the Merrimack River had regularly been tested by the state. William Sedgwick, a state biologist and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was sent to Lowell to determine if the increase in typhoid was caused by a change in the chemical nature of the river.

As soon as he arrived, an analysis was made of the Merrimack River water. A second analysis was done in December. After these chemical studies were conducted, the test results revealed the water to be "reasonably pure."  However, a chemical analysis was not as thorough as a bacteriological analysis.  During the latter half of December, Professor Sedgwick began conducting a microscopic examination of the germs and microbes found in Merrimack River water.  The germs were to be incubated and watched for several weeks to determine if typhoid fever microbes were present.

The Connecticut and Merrimack Rivers had been excluded from the act of 1878, which related to the pollution of ponds and rivers used as water supplies.  This statute forbid the depositing of sewage into rivers from which water was taken for drinking purposes.  The exclusion of these two rivers was based on the assumption that they were too large for contamination to take place.

Between October 1890 and March 1891, 452 cases of typhoid fever were reported in Lowell, with a death count of 106. It is estimated that the actual number of cases exceeded 700, for many physicians did not report every occurrence of the disease. With a population of over 77,000 in 1890, this number indicates that almost 1 % of the city's population was affected by the disease.

No one was safe from this deadly threat. It invaded households in every ward of the city and struck down residents of all ages. The disease was evenly distributed, with no significant numbers evident in any particular location, sewer line or topographical area. The onset of the disease was sudden and often accompanied by a chill. Temperatures of 102 to 104 degrees would often remain high for up to three weeks. Symptoms included a slow pulse, nausea, diarrhea, red spots and an enlarged spleen.  Intestinal hemorrhage often resulted. The average duration was 27 days. 


On the afternoon of December 23,1890, William Sedgwick appeared before the Lowell Water Board. Because of statements made by him concerning the condition of the Merrimack River, as shown by microscopic examination, it was voted that Sedgwick be authorized "by the Lowell Water Board to continue his scientific research.  To employ all means at his disposal to ascertain if any danger of any kind existed in the water of Merrimack River at Lowell. "

Two weeks later, on January 9,1891, Prof. Sedgwick appeared before the Water Board and "..expressed the fear that he would find germs in the water... based upon the fact that typhoid fever had been prevalent to some extent at North Chelmsford, dating from August 24th to November 24th.  There was positive evidence that three girls and one man at North Chelmsford, before finally leaving work for their sick beds, had used priveys that connected with Stoney Brook.  Thus he held there could be no doubt but that typhoid excrement had been in the river; that it passed down the river and over the falls was probable, but there was a danger that it might have contaminated water drawn through the inlet pipe."

A warning was issued by both state and local Boards of Health, directing all city water to be boiled for at least 15 minutes before using.  On January 15, it was also discovered that the sewage from the main wards of the corporation hospital on Pawtucket Street, (where many typhoid patients had been treated), was entering the Northern Canal.  Water from this canal was pumped into service pipes in mills throughout the city.

The Tremont and Suffolk, Merrimack, Carpet, Hamilton, Middlesex, Appleton and Lowell Machine Shop all pumped this canal water directly into their buildings for washing purposes.  The Tremont and Suffolk emptied their sewage into canal water that was then used by the mills of the Lawrence Corporation.  The Carpet, Hamilton, Appleton and Lowell Machine Shop poured their sewage into the canal whose water supplied the Boott and Massachusetts mills.  Even though this water was not supposed to be used for drinking purposes, many mill workers did use it because it was cold and accessible.

On January 19,1891, a special meeting of the Board of Health was called, where it "was voted that the Lowell Hospital Association be notified to connect all sewerage from their premises with the public sewer within 30 days from the time of notice." It was also "voted that the agents of the different corporations be notified to place a placard over each faucet on their premises where canal water is drawn saying that it is canal water and unfit for drinking purposes."