Friend of the Thirsty

Abel Wolman was born to parents who were Polish immigrants to the United States. He wanted to pursue a career in medicine, but his parents wanted him to pursue an engineering degree instead. He did receive a degree in engineering from Johns Hopkins University, but his career focus remained on public health.

He began his career as an engineer with the U.S. Public Health Service working as a sanitary engineer. This was a time when there was a growing awareness of public health concerns. Drinking water was especially unsafe.

There had been efforts to add chlorine to water supplies to eliminate pathogens, but there was no understanding of how much chlorine was needed. Working with a classmate, Linn Enslow, Abel developed a formula to determine the amount of chlorine needed for safe water consumption. He was 31 years old when this discovery was made.

When the Wolman/Enslow formula was applied to drinking water in Maryland, the cases of typhoid fever dropped by 92%. Abel continued his work on safe water and treatment, applying his engineering background to improve the health of citizens in Maryland. His work quickly spread to other parts of the country.

When Abel was hired by Johns Hopkins, he worked to build cross-disciplinary efforts between engineering and public health. These efforts also spread to other academic programs across the country.

Abel was the delegate to the founding of the World Health Organization (WHO). He was an advocate for the inclusion of environmental health in WHO’s constitution. This was 1946, long before others were thinking of environmental health concerns. He alerted the nation to the public health concerns with nuclear power and the dangers of chemicals in water supplies. Abel remained professionally active until his death at the age of 96.

The impact of some hidden heroes is so profound that we can’t imagine what conditions might have been like before they made contributions to society. We take safe water for granted as a basic human right, but that was not always the case. We are aware of the dangers of water contamination from chemicals, but that was not always so. A true measure of a human hidden hero is that their work has become infused in our society that we don’t even realize that someone had to develop that innovation.

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“Life in a sterile environment – whether physical, chemical, biological, or psychological – is both improbable and undesirable.” – Abel Wolman

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