William Thompson Sedgwick

William T. Sedgwick, early 1900's

William Thompson Sedgwick (December 29, 1855 - January 26, 1921) was a teacher, epidemiologist, bacteriologist, and a key figure in shaping public health in the United States. He was president of many scientific and professional organizations during his lifetime including president of the American Public Health Association in 1915. He was one of three founders of the joint MIT-Harvard School of Public School in 1913.

A native of West Hartford, Connecticut, he was the great-great-great-grandson of Samuel Sedgwick, one of the earliest settlers of the town. Sedgwick Middle School was named in his honor after it was built in 1931.

Early life and education Edit

William T. Sedgwick was born on December 29, 1855 in West Hartford, Connecticut. He was the son of William Sedgwick and Anne Thompson. He was also the half brother of George Sedgwick of New York City, and of Timothy Sedgwick, a former prominent citizen of West Hartford, the father of Charles A. Griswold's wife. He was a descendant of Samuel Sedgwick and the immigrant Sedgwick ancestor, Robert Sedgwick. He grew up on the north side of Park Road in a house that was removed in the early 1900's by Anton King to a location on the Sedgwick farm farther west at the top of the hill. After the death of his father in 1864, Sedgwick and his mother, Anne, moved to her former home in Farmington, Connecticut.

He graduated from Hartford Public High School in 1874 and entered college. In 1877, he received his undergraduate degree from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale University. He studied for two years at the Yale School of Medicine. He left Yale to take up studies at Johns Hopkins University in physiology. He became interested in biology and changed his course of study graduating with a PhD in biology in 1881 after being Professor of Biology at the school. He remained at Hopkins for two years as an associate in biology. In 1883, he was appointed Professor of Biology at MIT, in which position he remained until his death in 1921.

In 1888, Sedgwick began giving lectures in bacteriology to students in the civil engineering curriculum. His students became the spokesmen and practitioners who brought the principles of public health into the practice of engineering beginning in the 1890's and lasting well into the 20th century.

While he has been hailed as the first scientific American epidemiologist, Sedgwick was also described as not having a mathematical mind. He taught ideas and principles to his students. He instilled in his students the need to develop three basic behaviors: a vision of the subject in relation to the broader world, an honest method of working to seek the truth and an enthusiasm for service to the profession the public.

In 1902, he published the groundbreaking book, Principles of Sanitary Science and the Public Health, which was a compilation of his lectures from the courses he taught at MIT and a distillation of his experience working in the field.

Sedgwick influenced many practitioners in the field of public health. He played a key role in Samuel Cate Prescott's choice to go into bacteriology as a career, and was instrumental in Prescott's selection in the canning research with William Lyman Underwood in 1895–6 that would lead to the growth of food technology.

Career Edit

Harvard-MIT School for Public Health Officers Edit

Sedgwick’s courses at MIT and his influence on civil engineering students there can be considered the first instructions in the field of public health. However, he and two colleagues felt that a more formal academic structure was needed. In 1913, he joined with George C. Whipple and Milton J. Rosenau to establish the Harvard-MIT School for Public Health Officers. This was the first formal academic program designed to train public health professionals. The joint program lasted until 1922 when Harvard University decided to launch the Harvard School of Public Health.

Lawrence Experiment Station Edit

Beginning in 1888, Sedgwick was appointed as consulting biologist to the Massachusetts State Board of Health. He directed bacteriological research at the Lawrence Experiment Station and sent his brightest engineering students to work there—including George W. Fuller and Allen Hazen. Even though he was not known for his laboratory research studies, he was responsible, along with George W. Rafter in 1889, for developing the enumeration procedure and apparatus for examining microscopic organisms in surface water bodies.[9] The Sedgwick-Rafter counting cell is still in use today.

The Lawrence Experiment Station annual reports highlighted Sedgwick’s role as an epidemiologist. “In epidemiology, Sedgwick played a more direct and personal role and he was, indeed, the first scientific American epidemiologist.” Sedgwick used the annual report covering the work done in 1891 as a vehicle to publish his epidemiological studies of typhoid fever. “In the Annual Report of the State Board of Health of Massachusetts for 1892, Sedgwick presented studies on typhoid fever epidemics at Lowell and Lawrence, at Springfield and at Bondsville, which were classics in the field and which make this one of the most outstanding volumes in the history of epidemiology.”

Water quality and the Jersey City trials Edit

At the end of the 19th century, the water supply for Jersey City, New Jersey was contaminated with sewage and the death toll from typhoid fever was high. In 1899, the city contracted with a private company for the construction of a new water supply on the Rockaway River, which included a dam, reservoir and 23-mile pipeline. The project was completed on May 23, 1904; however, no treatment was provided to the water supply, because the contract did not require it. The city, claiming that the contract provisions were not fulfilled, filed a lawsuit in the Chancery Court of New Jersey. Jersey City officials complained that the water served to the city was not "pure and wholesome." Sedgwick testified as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in both trials. In the first trial, he testified that the water that was supplied to the city was contaminated with bacteria from sewage discharges in the watershed above the reservoir.

In the second trial, Sedgwick disagreed strongly with the proposal by John L. Leal to treat the water from the reservoir with calcium hypochlorite, which was called chloride of lime at that time. Instead, he believed that the construction of sewers in the watershed and a sewage disposal plant would be the preferable course of action. He also testified that chlorination did not remove organic matter, particulates and other filth, which could weaken the vital resistance of water consumers. However, the chlorination system was found to be safe, effective and reliable by the Special Master, William J. Magie, and was judged capable of supplying Jersey City with water that was "pure and wholesome."

Professional Associations Edit

He joined the New England Water Works Association in 1890 and was elected president of that organization in 1905. In 1902, he joined the American Public Health Association and became its president in 1915. He helped found the Society of American Bacteriologists (now American Society for Microbiology) and was chosen as president in 1900. He was also president of the American Society of Naturalists in 1900.

Sedgwick became a member of the Advisory Committee of the U.S. Public Health Service in 1902 and was involved in the adoption of the first national standards on drinking water quality—elimination of the common cup in 1912 and bacteriological standards for interstate carriers in 1914. After World War I, he was commissioned as Assistant Surgeon General in the reserves of the U.S. Public Health Service. Also, in 1914, Sedgwick was appointed a member of the Massachusetts Public Health Council, which was a component of the State Department of Public Health. He served on the Committee on Sanitary Engineering and he was Chairman of the Committee on Food and Drugs.

Publications and Honors Edit

Sedgwick was a prolific writer who published several hundred papers and other writings. His two most influential books were Principles of Sanitary Science and the Public Health and A Short History of Science. In the book, A Pioneer of Public Health, the authors include a complete list of Sedgwick’s publications.

In 1904, he was made an honorary member of the New England Water Works Association. He was elected as a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1901 and became vice president of that organization in 1905. In 1906, sixty of his former students gathered to honor Sedgwick at a dinner and symposium in Boston, MA. Sedgwick Middle School was named in his honor in West Hartford, CT in 1931.

In 1909, Yale University conferred upon him the honorary degree of Sc.D. and the University of Cincinnati gave him an honorary LL.D. in 1920.The American Public Health Association established the Sedgwick Memorial Medal in 1929 in his honor, for distinguished service and advancement of public health knowledge and practice. It is considered the APHA's highest honor.

When the Congregational Church of West Hartford celebrated its bicentennial anniversary in 1913, Professor Sedgwick was invited to give one of the principal addresses, and the older scholars from all the public schools, assembled in the Town Hall, listened with great interest to his account of his boyhood experiences in the town and in Farmington, Connecticut.

Personal Life and Death Edit

Sedgwick lived his entire life in New England. He married Mary Katrine Rice of New Haven, Connecticut on December 29, 1881. They had no children.

Sedgwick was a supporter of many causes that furthered the betterment of the public and he volunteered his time for numerous charitable institutions including his position of curator of the Lowell Institute beginning in 1897. However, he opposed women's suffrage and anything that smacked of equality of the sexes. In a long article in the New York Times, Sedgwick stated his views plainly. He believed that women's suffrage and feminism "...would mean a degeneration and degradation of human fiber which would turn back the hands of time a thousand years."

William Sedgwick died suddenly at the age of 65 at his home on January 25, 1921, in the midst of an active and distinguished career.