Making clean water flow

Walking across the Washington Ave Bridge spanning the Mississippi River, you may happen upon the following sidewalk cling:


U of M researchers are committed to making clean water flow freely, from the headwaters of the Mississippi to the slums of Mumbai. Learn more at

It may come of some surprise that this 21st century global public health perspective originated at the University of Minnesota during the nineteenth century as a result of the friendship between the first university president, William Watts Folwell, and Charles Hewitt, Minnesota’s first secretary of the State Board of Health.

Folwell and Hewitt first became acquainted as officers in the Union Army. After the war, both men became involved in the administration at the University. While president, Folwell worked closely with Hewitt and several other men including Perry Millard to propose the establishment of a college of medicine to the Board of Regents in 1882.

It is clear that these two men shared a bond both personally and professionally. Folwell, who was a faculty member of the political science department, showed great interest in not only the politics of urban sewage sanitation but also the public health implications of clean water and the need for sustainable practices. There is little doubt that his friend, Hewitt, had a hand in formulating his opinions on the power of clean water on public health.

Read Folwell’s article “The Disposal of City Cleanings” below. Note in his closing,

The city will not be allowed to discharge its filth into the Mississippi river indefinitely. Might as that stream is, it is not big enough to dilute and deodorize the sewage of a hundred towns and cities seated on its banks… It is none too soon to attend to the problem of caring for [our] own filth.

It is also interesting that with all of Folwell’s forward looking discussion of the ties between water sanitation and public health, his imagery of “brutes” and “savages” is emblematic of nineteenth century chauvinism and of no use today.