Charles Chandler

Charles Chandler, SCI's President from 1899–1900, did much to improve sanitation and safety in 19th century America.

Before 1873, New York's milkmen watered down the city's milk so much they netted themselves an extra $10,000 a day. Slaughterhouses had no sanitary supervision at all. Tenement houses were built with no regard for adequate light and ventilation. The kerosene used for lighting contained explosive naphtha fractions and, with no quality control, accidents were rife.

After Chandler and his associates had addressed these concerns, the city's death rate for children under five dropped by 5,000 a year.

Born in Massachusetts in 1836, Chandler was the son of a draper. A chance gift of test tubes, an alcohol lamp and some other pieces of apparatus fired a life-long interest in chemistry, though his early experiments in the wooden shed he used as a laboratory nearly set the house on fire.

Needing money for chemicals and apparatus, he did a deal with his father - for $1 a week he would sweep and open up the shop five days a week. This willingness to take on menial tasks was to win him his first job as a chemist.

He went to Harvard and the Lawrence Scientific School and studied chemistry under Wöhler at Göttingen, Germany, returning to the US in 1857. Prof Joy of Union College, Schenectady (New York) wanted him as an assistant, but the college trustees refused to come up with a salary. The only post going was for a janitor, so Chandler rolled up his shirt sleeves and got to work, filling in as a lab assistant and teaching students when he could.

He did not stay a janitor for long, and by 1864 he was offered a chair at the new School of Mines at Columbia College (now university), where his younger brother William, who also became an SCI Member, was to join him. Even then the pay was uncertain, and his salary depended on attracting students. He must have managed this with no problems, as he was to spend 50 years at Columbia.

Another decade on, and Chandler was appointed President of the Metropolitan Board of Health. This was evidently a wide-ranging position, judging by the huge amount he and his team accomplished.

Chandler cleaned up the public markets and established sanitation. He regulated the gas supply, and established regulations for kerosene, so reducing the frequent number of lamp explosions.

Recognising that poor housing was taking its toll on the population's health, he lobbied for a Tenement House Act, which required plans for tenement dwellings to be submitted to the health authorities, complete with provision for adequate light and ventilation.

As household plumbing was often primitive, he designed an improved siphon system and flush tanks for lavatories, purposefully not taking out a patent to encourage rapid take-up. Then he cleaned up the city's water supply.

New York's under-fives were doubtless the first to benefit from his campaign for pure milk, which must have put some of those corrupt milkmen out of business. He also discovered and prevented the sale of adulterated alcoholic drinks and poisoned cosmetics.

Realising access to medical care was also inadequate, he introduced home visits for doctors into the congested areas of New York, which despite the recent creation of Central Park, were very congested indeed, as well as free vaccinations. He also established separate hospitals for contagious diseases.

Chandler somehow found time to found and edit a journal, American Chemist, with his brother William, which was published until 1877, and he often appeared as an expert witness in court cases.

He joined forces with another SCI President, Dr W H Nichols, to fix the meaning of the Beaumé scale for sulphuric acid, as '66 Beaumé' had become no more than a label.

Nor did he neglect chemistry, having an active interest in sugar, petroleum, illuminating gas, photographic materials, aniline dyes and electrochemistry. He was instrumental in founding the American Chemical Society in 1876 and its Journal of the American Chemical Society, which succeeded American Chemist.

Chandler died in 1925 aged nearly 89, surprisingly enough not of exhaustion.

Image: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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