chapter  6
22 Pages

Moralizing Milk

Christopher Hamlin’s research has shown that the interaction between Victorian science and public health was ‘complicated and contingent’ and entangled with the issue of the authority of expertise and with the politics of intervention.5 the evolution of water standards was not just a matter of the scientific discovery of better methods of laboratory analysis but rather the result of dispute, even amongst the scientists themselves. Before about 1860 there was no consensus about analytical procedures. in the eighteenth century the use of chemical reagents was common, based upon anticipated reactions with known chemicals, but the results were uncertain and qualitative at best. evaporation was an alternative, yielding a number of salts that, with care, could be quantified, giving at least the impression of accuracy. in the

early nineteenth century the notion of water quality became increasingly bound up with contamination, especially with organic and faecal matter, as revealed by the power of the compound microscope. the 1828 royal Commission on the Metropolitan Water supply heard evidence about the unsatisfactory situation of water companies drawing water from the heavily polluted river thames but the chemists were unable to agree on the nature or degree of that pollution. Gradually a concept of bad water did emerge but, confusingly, it had many dimensions, including debates about softness/hardness; whether water was a vector of diseases such as cholera; the micro-ecology of water-borne organisms; and the relationship between dissolved nitrogen and sewage contamination. From the 1860s experts such as edward Frankland, acquired authority as greater agreement became possible about appropriate modes of chemical analysis.6 Practical administrative measures were also significant, such as the trend towards the end of the century of the filtering of drinking water. Coupled with the bacteriology that was coming forward at the same time, this last change helped to accelerate the improvements in quality that became widespread in the twentieth century. all told, this story was certainly not one of steady progress, but of a winding path that included many uncertainties and the mutual hostility of various vested interests. it could have had a different outcome, and there were local and regional variations to prove that point. there were also diverse water histories in other countries.7