Who is Abel Wolman?
(Based on an article written by Dr. Howard Rosen, which appeared in the October 1989 issue of the APWA Reporter.)
With the 50-year mark as the traditional retirement goal, a career spanning 73 years is almost unheard of. That is, unless you're talking about Abel Wolman. (1892-1989) Although you may never have heard his name before, Wolman's work has had an impact on millions of people.
Wolman was born, lived and died in Baltimore, Maryland. His career began in 1915 and ended with his death in 1989. He was a graduate of Johns Hopkins University with a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering in 1915. His first full-time job after graduation was as an Assistant Engineer with the Maryland Department of Public Health, a position he held until 1922.
During those years, at the age of 26, Wolman perfected the formula for the chlorination of urban water supplies. In cooperation with chemist Linn H. Enslow, Wolman took what was an empirical practice that was just beginning and gave it a rigorous scientific basis. As a result of Wolman's efforts, chlorination, which is still the primary method for water treatment, was made available to communities of different sizes and specific water treatment needs.
Wolman believed strongly in joining engineering practice with scientific theory. His personal research work with a university chemist, and then his association with Johns Hopkins University reflected his commitment to scientific research and his efforts to bring the benefits of the latest scientific work into engineering. Wolman was also an active participant in persuading the public and elected officials to support effective public works programs, with meeting opposition to chlorination one of his first battlefields.
Along with Dr. Albert E. Berry in Canada and other leaders in sanitary engineering, Wolman had to overcome often strong opposition to convince local governments that putting amounts of otherwise poisonous chemicals in the water supply would be extremely beneficial to public health. Through effective public speaking, writing, behind-the-scenes meetings, and whatever else it took, Abel Wolman helped persuade the profession and the public that improving the quality of water supply was crucial for the future.
From 1922 to 1939, Wolman served as Chief Engineer for the Maryland State Department of Health. His efforts there helped develop the plan for Baltimore's water supply so thoroughly and effectively that it remains well-provided for growth through the 21st century. His work also benefited water systems in New York, Detroit and Columbus, Ohio.
Wolman was a major figure in the public works programs of the New Deal and World War II. He was deeply involved with many of the programs associated with the Potomac River Basin, which through his efforts resulted in the formation of the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin in 1940 and was named by Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be one of its first Federal Commissioners.
Engineer, editor and author, Abel Wolman served in literally scores of positions, each of which he took very seriously. At the same time, he established the Department of Sanitary Engineering in the School of Engineering and in the School of Hygiene and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University and served as Chairman from its start in 1937 until his "retirement" in 1962.
After World War II, Wolman helped create many of the key international bodies which have served to solve water resource and public health problems throughout the world. He was a member of the first delegation to the World Health Organization and was an active figure in the Pan American Health Organization. Wolman was chairman of the Board of Consultants to the Jordan River Development program which planned the water system for Israel, and he was a founder of the Inter-American Association of Sanitary and Environmental Engineering (AIDIS).
He was a dues-paying member of more than 100 professional associations and served as President of the American Public Health Association (1939) and the American Water Works Association (1942). Wolman was an Honorary Member of 17 different national and international bodies, including the American Public Works Association. In 1986 the City of Baltimore dedicated the Abel Wolman Municipal Building in recognition of his extraordinary service to the community. APWA's Public Works Historical Society presents the Abel Wolman Award each year to the author of the book judged to have made the best contribution to the field of public works. Wolman himself was the author of four books and 338 articles. His first paper was published in 1916, and his last appeared in 1987.