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President's Message (C Factor)

The 1840s: Not a Good Time for White House Water
By Mike Darrow
Posted on 2/1/2019 6:44 AM

Wow--it’s February! This cold-weather month is already here. Presidents’ Day in the United States is here as well. I was doing some research on U.S. presidents and water policy and found some information about the White House and its water supply, and the link to three U.S. presidents.


First Sources of Water


The first water system for the City of Washington, near the White House, was created in 1802 at a natural spring. In 1808 a well was sunk at the spring site and expanded the system to a few nearby hotels. The U.S. Congress first appropriated funds in 1819 to purchase this spring and supply for a dedicated water source to the president's house, but this was not completed until 1833. With the addition of steam-driven pumps and cast iron piping, this spring water was delivered to the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. Water was supplied this way until the early 1850s when the water sources were changed.


Death in the White House  


In the 1840s the three presidents elected in United States were William Henry Harrison, James K. Polk, and Zachary Taylor; two of the three died in office and the third was sickened in office and died three months later. President Harrison, nicknamed “Old Tippecanoe,” took office in 1841 and died just 31 days into his presidency; this is the shortest length of office for any U.S. president.  Officially, President Harrison died of pneumonia, and President Polk and President Taylor both died both of gastrointestinal issues.


New forensic research shows all three deaths could be link to the White House water supply in the 1840s and early 1850s. Researchers were looking through the journal of President Harrison’s doctor and found his death to be related to stomach and gastrointestinal issues. Researchers looking back in their history found all three had the similar symptoms.


The White House water supply is a leading suspect in the death of President Harrison. History has generally accepted that he died of pneumonia after giving what remains the longest inaugural address on record, in a freezing rain without benefit of hat or coat. Harrison’s gastrointestinal tract, however, may have been a veritable playground for the bacteria in the White House water.


Harrison suffered from indigestion most of his life.  The standard treatment then was to use carbonated alkali, a base, to neutralize the gastric acid. Unfortunately, in neutralizing the gastric acid, Harrison removed his natural defense to harmful bacteria. As a result, it might have taken far less than the usual concentration of salmonella to cause gastroenteritis. In addition, Harrison was treated during his final illness with opium, standard at the time, which slowed the ability of his body to get rid of bacteria, allowing them more time to get into his bloodstream. It has been noted, that, as Harrison lay dying, he had a sinking pulse and cold, blue extremities, which is consistent with septic shock. Harrison may have died of pneumonia, but there is the strong likelihood is that pneumonia was secondary to gastroenteritis.


James K. Polk, too, reported frequently in his diary that he suffered from stomach and intestinal problems while in the White House. For example, Polk’s diary entry for Thursday, June 29, 1848 noted that “before sunrise” that morning he was taken with a “violent diarrhea” accompanied by “severe pain,” which rendered him unable to move. Polk, a noted workaholic, spent nearly his entire administration tethered to the White House. After leaving office, weakened by years of gastric poisoning, Polk succumbed, reportedly like Taylor, to “cholera morbis,” a mere three months after leaving the Oval Office.


Zachary Taylor also succumbed in July 1850 to what was essentially an acute form of gastroenteritis; the cause was probably salmonella bacteria. Almost immediately after his death, rumors began to circulate that Taylor was poisoned by proslavery Southerners, and similar theories persisted into the 21st century. A recent post-mortem analysis conducted at Oak Ridge National Laboratory revealed no evidence of poisoning and concluded Taylor had contracted "cholera morbus, or acute gastroenteritis," as Washington had open sewers, and his food or drink may have been contaminated.


This phenomena limited wasn’t limited to mid-nineteenth century presidents. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson mentioned in a letter to a good friend that “after all my life having enjoyed the benefit of well-formed organs of digestion and deportation,” he was taken, “two years ago,” after moving into the White House, “with diarrhea, after having dined moderately on fish.”  Jefferson noted he had never had it before, but he problem plagued him for the rest of his life. Early reports of Jefferson’s death stated that he had died because of dehydration from diarrhea.


Was It the Water?


We can speculate, was it the spring or the delivery system that was contaminated? Was it due to increased withdrawal rates from the spring? How many others may have died? Was it the change in the water source in the 1850s that stopped this problem? Or was this another wild conspiracy theory? 


To me, as a water/wastewater operator, I want to know more about this. There was no chlorination or advanced water treatment back then. The source water was everything to a water’s purity for drinking. A good well was life to the area, and very important for community growth, and the well-being of it citizens. 


As it turns out, there was no wastewater collection system back then in Washington, D.C. The common method of disposal in the area was an old sewerage dump. This dump was a ground depression opening used to get rid of waste, which was upstream of the natural flow of the groundwater to the White House’s source water. This sewerage dump was used by locals and the government to dump nightly waste, an early process for disposing of wastewater. Never a good thing to be downstream of that!  


This method of disposal for human waste, with no treatment, would have been a breeding ground for two deadly bacteria, Salmonella typhi and Salmonella paratyphi, the causes of typhoid and paratyphoid fever. Researchers are now linking this information to all three presidential deaths. Limited records for the time do not show results of other deaths from this water at the White House, but the source water was moved to the Potomac River in the mid-1850s.  


I wanted to relay this story in honor of Presidents’ Day and because it shows the importance of our daily tasks as operators and mechanics for public health and safety. It also shows the need for advancement in technology in water treatment, wastewater collection, and treatment. Modern living on the scale we have now could not exist without our efforts of working together to be dedicated professionals protecting public health. We would read this story in a different light today if we didn’t have safe drinking water and reliable wastewater treatment. So keep up the good work!! Your community depends on you each and every day!   


Continuing Education Units (CEU’s) and the FWPCOA Online Institute


Our water and wastewater state licenses renew on April 30, so let the fun begin. As you all know, there is a two-year renewal cycle where CEUs in our discipline must be achieved. The process is taking training courses and submitting them to the FDEP operator certification program for application to your license number. Before your license can be renewed the right amount of CEUs must be tagged to your number. So what are you waiting for? 


We at FWPCOA are here to help you in the process by offering CEUs in many different ways. The fastest way is through on Online Institute at or through our website at This is a great place to get low-cost and easy-access training to you anytime. Make sure you take advantage of this for fast results. Contact Tim McVeigh at for more information. Look for local training in your area through your region on the website or the training office for a class near you.


Did you know that reading the Florida Water Resource Journal could be the way to get your CEUs? Read an article, take a test, submit it, and earn your CEUs!  


Anyway you get them, you’re now on track to continue working in your discipline and protecting the public. Nothing wrong with improving your knowledge base!