Animalcules in the water

Today I encountered an interesting little random historical coincidence while perusing Scientific American‘s Anecdotes from the Archive blog. A recent entry mentioned that last year a reddit user found an abundance of microscopic crustaceans called copepods in his New York City tap water. Scientific American, as it happens, had alerted its readership to this shockingly shrimpy state of affairs as early as October 10, 1846.

The fact is generally known that nearly all liquids contain a variety of minute living animals, though in some they are too small for observation, even with a microscope. In others, especially in water that has been long stagnant, these animals appear not only in hideous forms, but with malignant and voracious propensities. The print at the head of this article purports to be a microscopic representation of a single drop of such water, with the various animals therein, and some of the inventors and venders of the various improved filters for the Croton water, would have no objection to the prevalence of the opinion that this water contains all the variety of monsters represented in this cut. But the fact is far otherwise; and it is doubtful whether these animals could frequently be detected in the Croton water, with the best solar microscope. Nevertheless, the fact is readily and clearly established that the Croton water contains a quantity of deleterious matter, which is arrested by the filters; and, on this account, we cheerfully and heartily recommend the adoption of filters by all who use this water, from either the public or private hydrants. To this end we would call the special attention of our city readers to the improved filters noticed under the head of “New Inventions.”

Compare the 1846 drawing accompanying this notice to a couple of the beasties in New York’s tap water today:

Impressive resemblance considering the artistic approach of the 1846 graphic, I say. Scientific American painted them all with an ominous brush, but copepods can be very salutary for standing water because they have an insatiable taste for mosquito larvae. In some places copepods are added to the water to reduce mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever.

On the other hand, in tropical countries where water systems are untreated, cholera bacteria have been observed on the surface of plankton, and guinea worm larvae in their digestive tracts. A simple cloth filter strains copepods out of tap water, however, so they’re easy enough to remove if you have dietary restrictions or live in a tropical climate.

The coincidence is that I just posted in the Seneca Village entry about how the city evicted poor and working class residents so they could build the Croton Distributing Reservoir on their land. The reservoir opened for business on June 22, 1842, when the first water from the Croton River in Westchester County traveled 41 miles downhill to supply thirsty, polluted, flammable and cholera-infested Manhattan.

Four years later and some people were already freaking out about the hideous creatures of malignant and voracious propensities living in their delicious new water. I find that amusing considering that Manhattan is surrounded by brackish water and the population explosion in the 19th century quickly saw to it that there was more raw sewage than water in most people’s supply. I’ll take mini-calamari over stewed feces any day of the week.

Which reminds me, there’s an exhibit at the Welcome Collection in London called Dirt: The filthy reality of everyday life which looks at our fascinating relationship to the grossness around (and inside of) us. One of the art works on display is an 1828 etching by William Hearth that seems relevant:

That is a lady dropping her teacup in dismay after seeing the “monster soup commonly called Thames Water” at close range.