Engineering clean water

Gordon Fair, far right, with colleagues

[Fall 2013 Centennial issue]

When sanitary engineer Gordon Fair joined the faculty of Harvard School of Public Health in 1919, one fact seemed certain: Water could sustain life, but in many cases, it could also take it away. In the late 19th century, contaminated drinking water caused outbreaks of dysentery, cholera, and typhoid fever in major cities worldwide, and the design of effective water and sewer systems—Fair’s expertise—had become a keystone of public health efforts.

After arriving at Harvard, however, Fair quickly became frustrated by what he saw as the “unscientific” nature of the field, which had been based mainly on the wisdom and advice of elder engineers. During his 46-year tenure at the school, Fair helped codify sanitary engineering, transforming it from a field steeped in empirical experience to one based on data and quantitative analysis. As his son, Lansing, recalled in a 1997 interview, when Fair started at HSPH, most textbooks contained only two formulas. “Now, they have 1,600, and they all mean something,” he noted.

In addition to refining the methods of sanitary engineering, Fair also helped revamp the role of the field within public health. Rather than focus only on hydraulics and intake velocities, he felt his peers should be concerned with larger water quality issues. By the mid–1950s, more than two decades before the birth of the environmental movement, Fair played a key role in bringing attention to water pollution in Lake Michigan, and later became a leading figure of the Harvard Water Program, an interdisciplinary group that helped manage water resources in everything from hydroelectric dams to public swimming pools.

Although environmental engineering (as the field is called today) focuses as much on microbes and biochemistry as it does on structural design, Fair’s legacy lives on. Even now, his work influences the water management strategies of the Army Corps of Engineers, guiding them as they work to control floodwaters in rivers across the U.S.

Madeline Drexler