Deadly Water: An Era Gone By

We take for granted the access to clean water for bathing and drinking. Not too long ago, clean water was only obtained if it was boiled, or if distilled was available. In the early 1900s, public education on contaminated water was beginning through the training of nurses.


Deadly Water: An Era Gone By

Dark clouds moved over the farm, casting shadows on the grass. The birds sang and fluttered among the tree branches. A calm settled over the fields while the dogs ran in circles around the cattle.

Sitting at the kitchen table, William could smell the rain. He erased the" A" he had just drawn on the small chalkboard and began again. Inhaling deeply, William exhaled slowly as he squinted at the board.

The afternoon light dimmed as the sun hid behind the storm clouds. The candle's flame disappeared as a cool burst of wind punched through the window, knocking the curtains back. Spring was around the corner, but the day's cold temperature kept the lake frozen.

William got up from the table to look outside. He was thirsty, so he grabbed the hammer and ran outside to the lake. He broke some ice off the lake and put the pieces in his pocket as he ran back into the house. He barely made it inside before the rain began. Giggling, he put the ice in a cup and poured water from the pitcher into his cup.

The next morning, William was collecting eggs from the chickens when he began to feel stomach cramps. His flannel overcoat suddenly seemed too heavy, so he took it off and laid it over the fence so it wouldn't get dirty in the damp chicken coop. Bending over once again, he picked up two more eggs. Suddenly he stood up straight in his knickers and dropped the eggs.

Running to the outhouse, he started crying as diarrhea ran down his leg: the suspenders and buttons were too much to undo in time. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, William went back and collected his coat and the eggs, taking them into the house. Tears began again as he saw his mother take in the scene before her.

He didn't expect the look of panic he saw in her brown eyes.

She took the eggs from him and led him to the tub to clean up. William never saw the blood on his pants.

Once in bed, William slept. Over the next couple of days, William's diarrhea got worse.

He could not keep water or food down. When he had a seizure, his mother screamed out in horror. She had never seen a person have a seizure and did not know what was happening.

William's little body lie limp, his eyes blank.

The next morning, William was gone. Outside, the rain started falling from the black sky in fat drops, then turned into a flurry of a storm.

William in his innocence had no idea that the ice he gathered from the lake was contaminated. He just wanted a cool drink after working on his homework. It could have been E. coli or shigella bacillus, either way it was fatal for this young boy. Because they lived on a farm, far away from medical care along with the lack of knowledge that was common in this era, William, like many people, died from contaminated water.

In the book, Hygiene and Sanitation A text book for Nurses by George M. Price, M.D. he tells nurses about the health concerns regarding water. Ice is used frequently for drinking and also for keeping food cold. Most ice is "taken from lakes, ponds and rivers" that can be contaminated. He says that it is OK to use this ice as a "cooling method" but not for drinks. Freezing does not kill the bacteria that lurks in the water, so use it only for ice chests and refrigerators (some use electricity) made of wood.

These old books give us the gift of seeing into the past when nursing and disease prevention was just beginning to become a public concern. In the forward, Price writes these precious words: "The last decade has seen a wonderful expansion of the function of the trained nurse and a great broadening of the scope of her usefulness. No longer are her duties limited to the simple care of the sick. The nurse has become a priestess of prophylaxis. Her work in preventative medicine has become invaluable. She has become an important factor in social, in municipal, and in public health work."

I enjoy reading my old medical books and writing the "era gone by" series. I learn something every time. Most importantly, I feel a connection with the nurses who once held the old, dusty books. If you like this article, you can read the rest of my series at my blog.


Price, George M. M.D. Hygiene and Sanitation a Text Book for Nurses. 3rd ED. Lea & Febiger, 1917.

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