Building a collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach to water may sound like a new idea, but it is a Johns Hopkins University tradition begun with Abel Wolman nearly a century ago. This integrative approach closely relates to JHU’s founding mission to combine research and scholarship, advancing both the knowledge of its students and the state of human knowledge.
Abel Wolman was born in 1892 of Polish immigrants, Morris and Rose Wolman, in a poor East Baltimore neighborhood, blocks from where the Bloomberg School of Public Health stands today. After attending public schools, he was encouraged by his mother Rose to pursue a university education at Johns Hopkins. Wolman had an avid interest in public health before finishing college. In 1913, he conducted water quality studies for the U.S. Public Health Service, examining water and wastewater treatment plants and the effects of their effluent on the Potomac River. He earned a BA from Johns Hopkins that same year, and completed his BS in 1915 as part of the first Engineering class to graduate from Hopkins.
Abel Wolman’s dedication to Water and Health led him to make one of the most significant contributions of the 20th century to the world’s public health, saving millions of lives through the chlorination of public drinking water supplies. Wolman’s work established the formula using chlorine to render drinking water safe for human consumption. While working for the Maryland Department of Public Health, Wolman and Linn Enslow developed a method of chlorinating water that was quickly adopted for water purification in nearly every water system in the country, and eventually adopted throughout the world. This has saved countless lives from waterborne diseases such as typhoid fever, which was prevalent at that time and continues to persist in areas of the world without adequately chlorinated drinking water. John B. Mannion wrote in the Journal of the American Water Works Association that “No other chemical application undertaken by man has had the public health benefit of the disinfection of water by chlorine.” In a pioneering example of the evidence-based and multidisciplinary approach to Water and Health that we have at JHU today, Abel Wolman, an engineer, worked with Arthur Gorman from 1920 to 1936, to compile the first U.S. public health statistics on Waterborne Disease Outbreaks (WBDO)—statistics that continue to be compiled today.
Wolman was profoundly interested in improving and monitoring Water Infrastructure. He published several hundred papers on rapid sand filtration, assessment of drinking water supply, all phases of water systems from “raw” through the wastewater treatment process, and even the financing of infrastructure. An eloquent and convincing advocate, he was instrumental in convincing cities and towns to install water treatment and wastewater treatment plants in order to avoid spreading waterborne diseases.
During his career, Wolman was active in promoting public health through water supply and environmental management, and was instrumental in forming Water Policy both locally and internationally. For example, through the New Deal National Planning Board, Wolman served on Maryland’s advisory board to review land use, seafood conservation and public health. During the Reclamation Era, he chaired American Water Works, speaking on behalf of soil conservation and reforestation. He became chairman of the Water Resources Planning Committee of the National Resources Planning Board during the Roosevelt era, and became increasingly involved in national policy. His papers reflected a need for a national water policy. The post-war era brought the development of nuclear energy. Wolman stressed the importance of protecting public health when planning nuclear power plants and disposing of atomic waste, and he became a member of the First Reactor Safeguards Committee, an advisory group formed to evaluate technical health and safety aspects of nuclear reactors. He served as chairman of the consulting committee on the development of water systems for the state of Israel from 1945 till his death in 1989. He was also an advisor to India, Ceylon, and Thailand, and to many countries in Latin American and Africa. He was a member of the first delegation founding the World Health Organization (WHO) and directed a program focusing on water supply and treatment. In a speech to WHO on world water supplies, Wolman stated that “I want water for people to drink and water for people to wash and children that survive. Too many children are dying.” He served nine Baltimore mayors from 1914 until 1989, first as a government officer, and later as a consultant.
Throughout most of his life, Wolman taught courses at Hopkins. Beginning in 1922, he taught part-time at JHU and later became a full Professor in 1937. It was his philosophy that Sanitary Engineering should be integrated with human health, social, economic, and political concepts. Thus, he helped to bridge both the Engineering and Hygiene schools by chairing Sanitary Engineering and Environmental Health Sciences (now Department of Geography and Engineering (DoGEE), and the Bloomberg School of Public Health). His son, M. Gordon “Reds” Wolman, stated in his biographical memoir of Abel Wolman, “The joint appointment reflected his view that the environmental engineer should have a deep understanding of the field of public health that encompassed fields such as epidemiology, toxicology, and microbiology.” His philosophy continued at JHU and expanded, becoming the foundation for the Global Water Program today.
At Wolman’s death in 1989, Steven Muller, president of Johns Hopkins University, told the New York Times, “I can think of no other Johns Hopkins faculty member and alumnus who has touched so many lives around the globe with his life’s work.”
But Abel was not the only Wolman to make a mark on water and on Johns Hopkins. Abel Wolman and his wife Anne’s only child, Markley Gordon Wolman, “Reds”, was born in 1924 and was already attending American Water Works Association meetings as a small child. While growing up, he was immersed in his father’s intellectual world, full of conversation and debate. He became fascinated with dairy farming at a young age, spending his summers working on a dairy farm in Connecticut. His mother Anne said that she wanted him to learn that “milk did not come from bottles,” an experience that undoubtedly shaped his interest in links between humans and their environment.
Reds started college in 1942 at Haverford College, but his studies were cut short by World War II when he was drafted into the Navy. He served in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1943 to 1946. Returning when the war ended, he finished his undergraduate work at Hopkins in 1949 with a BA in Geology. He then continued at Harvard, attaining a Master's and PhD in Geology. From 1951 to 1958 Reds worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, focusing his research on rivers, their beds, and the nature of erosion.
Reds quickly became a leading thinker on Water in the Environment. In 1953 Reds published his PhD dissertation on a stream in Pennsylvania, Brandywine Creek, a well-known case study on geomorphology. A year later, he published what has been known as the “Wolman pebble count,” a widely used technique he developed to quantify the sediment size distribution of a stream. Along with Luna Leopold and John Miller, Reds published the seminal text Fluvial Processes in Geomorphology in 1964, which was republished in 1995 and is still in use.
Like his father, Reds Wolman believed in interdisciplinary collaboration. In 1958 Reds rejoined Johns Hopkins to become chairman of the Isaiah Bowman Department of Geography. He facilitated the merging of Geography with the Sanitary and Water Resources Engineering Department to become the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering (DoGEE), which he also chaired from 1970 to 1990.
As said by Charlie O’Melia, DoGEE Professor, “[Reds] was interdisciplinary long before it became the fashionable thing to do.” Reds went to great lengths to maintain close ties with the school of Public Health, and later served at the director of the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, while still maintaining his position at DoGEE.
Reds Wolman’s interest in the behavior of natural rivers in the environment led to studies of the issues of water quality and policy. “Every place in the world, you are likely to put human need before ecological need, but you have to be careful of that … people ultimately are dependent on the quality of their water sources.” Like his father, Reds translated this passion for research into leadership in Water Policy. Notably he chaired many committees and forums, including Maryland’s Advisory Committee on the Management and Protection of the State’s Water Resources and the National Committee on Water Quality Policy, National Academy of Sciences.
The Wolmans left a lasting legacy with the Johns Hopkins community. This is no surprise, as Reds and Abel Wolman’s combined time at Johns Hopkins as full-time faculty members exceeded 92 years, with several decades of overlap. Throughout that long tenure, the Wolmans were visionary leaders, reshaping their fields and reshaping the interdisciplinary nature of the School of Engineering and the School of Public Health. Clearly, they remain a revered asset to the Hopkins community, as then Johns Hopkins president William R. Brody aptly remarked “Reds Wolman and his father, Abel, are a treasured part of the Hopkins heritage, not only have they each been significant forces in their fields, but their combined commitment to the University has also been legendary.” At the time of his passing in 2010, Reds was much beloved by the JHU community. Although their research had a different focus, Abel’s being drinking water and Reds’ being river management, both shared the belief that being stewards of the environment required a knowledge base that favored the “whole” over the sum of its parts. They reflected this belief in their work and commitment to the University, and they believed in the power of an integrative approach using evidence-based research that continues to shape the JHU Global Water Program today.
Keywords: Abel Wolman, Reds Wolman, M. Gordon Wolman, chlorinated drinking water, wolman pebble count
The JHU Global Water Program encourages you to share you experiences. We hope you take this opportunity to exchange views and information on water and post a comment. If you had a reaction to the article, came up with an idea, or have relevant experiences or information, we want to hear about it.
1 Comment on this article.
Very informative article Betsy! It’s crazy to think where we would be as a population without this type of research, and people like Abel. Who knows where we would be really. It boggles the mind.
Comments are moderated and must be relevant and not abusive. Comments may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give the JHU Global Water Program permission to publish this comment.