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The golden yellow liquid in the clear plastic bottle was unlike any drinking water sample George Bowman had seen in more than 30 years of service at the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene (WSLH).
Drawn from a north-central Wisconsin well, the sample looked and smelled more like it should have been sent out for urinalysis rather than a contaminant screening.
The water chemistry supervisor wasn't quite sure what to make of it. "It looked like someone tried to sabotage the sample," Bowman said, referring to its obvious physical characteristics. "It didn't look like the typical sample."
The first battery of tests on the sample turned out OK – it was relatively free of typical contaminants like nitrates and bacteria. So Bowman delved deeper. He initiated more tests, consulted with WSLH colleague Sharon Kluender, contacted DNR water supply specialist Chuck Fitzgerald to learn more about the sample's origin, and even contacted the state crime lab to find out if the sample could have been & man-made.
"The goal was to find what was wrong, because it clearly was not something people should be drinking," Bowman said. His dogged quest to protect public health has been shared by scores of researchers, technicians, doctors and scientists during the 100-year history of the WSLH.
The first century
"When the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene was created 100 years ago, the mission was very simple: control infectious diseases, and provide a safe water supply," said Dr. Ronald Laessig, WSLH Director since 1980 and professor of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "One hundred years later, our mission is to control infectious diseases, and provide a safe water supply."
The WSLH began humbly enough. Inspired by a visit to the Hygienishe Institute of Germany, Dr. Harry L. Russell conceived of a laboratory that would serve the needs of the university and the state, advancing the cause of pure scientific research and improving the overall health of Wisconsin's citizens. Working under a mandate from the Wisconsin State Board of Health, the laboratory would be a valuable teaching resource for the University of Wisconsin and address the growing need for a facility capable of analyzing communicable diseases and other public health risks.
The concept was popular with state physicians and the university, in part because it advanced the "Wisconsin Idea," conceptualized in the late 1800s by Senator Robert M. La Follette and University President Charles Van Hise. The Wisconsin Idea seeks to build partnerships between the university and the state's citizens – or as Van Hise put it, make "the beneficent influence of the University available to every home in the State."
Russell and his allies appealed to the legislature, and on October 1, 1903 the State Hygienic Laboratory opened for business in the basement of Agriculture Hall on the UW-Madison campus. Russell was named its first director, charged with disbursing an annual budget of $1,500.
Under the leadership of Dr. William D. Stovall, the State Lab's third director, the WSLH went from analyzing some 9,000 samples annually in 1915, to more than 500,000 when he retired in 1958. By 1953, the WSLH moved into a new building, named in Stovall's honor.
"Dr. Stovall changed the face of medicine, public health and the environmental health in Wisconsin almost single-handedly," Laessig said. "He continuously worked to improve the WSLH's capacity and capabilities, but Stovall's accomplishments reached far beyond the laboratory. He taught at the UW Medical School, served as acting superintendent of Wisconsin General Hospital and co-founded the Wisconsin Division of the American Cancer Society."
The lab continued to expand its range of services and in 1998 added a second building on Madison's east side to house its burgeoning Environmental Health Division (EHD).
"I think we've got a first-class facility," said Dr. William C. Sonzogni, EHD Director and professor of civil and environmental engineering at UW-Madison. "In fact, we've had visitors from all over the world specifically come to see our design and layout because it has become a model for other laboratories."
Today, the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene employs 320 people and conducts hundreds of tests each day in diverse areas such as newborn screening, cancer detection, drug and alcohol analysis, heavy metals, asbestos, toxic mold, and, of course, water testing and communicable diseases.
Evidence of achievement
Water quality was a far graver concern for Wisconsin residents in the early 1900s than it is today. Through the 1920s, diseases like cholera, typhoid fever and diphtheria caused by microbes in contaminated drinking water were the leading causes of death in the United States.
"The first big dent public health agencies put into this problem came from chlorinating water supplies for people who were using surface waters," said Jon Standridge, a microbiologist and researcher at the WSLH in Wisconsin. "In Wisconsin you determined whether or not your chlorination worked by the tests we did at the laboratory."
Chlorination had an immediate impact. By the 1950s, death from diseases contracted from drinking water nearly had been eliminated.
People who drew their drinking water from wells benefited from updated construction codes, which required wells to be dug deeper and to be cased. This step helped keep surface contaminants from reaching well water. Agricultural standards of cleanliness – including the water used on the farm – were raised; cleaner operations earned "Grade A" status, allowing those farmers to sell their milk at premium prices. "Water testing at the State Laboratory encouraged the move from unsafe water supplies to safe water supplies in the rural sector, particularly in the farming industry," Standridge said.
Rapid industrialization along Wisconsin's rivers in the first half of the 20th century brought new public health concerns, most notably pollution from industrial contaminants and the damaging effects of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 sought to address these concerns, and the WSLH did its part.
"Back in the early '70s, we were one of the first public health labs in the country to do environmental analysis," Sonzogni said. "Worldwide, some of the pioneering research on PCBs was done here at the University of Wisconsin. The WSLH was there to develop analytical techniques because we had the good fortune of being around some of the top people in the country. We became a center for PCB analysis."
Around the same time, the WSLH was charged with providing laboratory research and testing services for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. "In the long term, the partnership has worked out very well," Sonzogni said. "While state statutes require the WSLH to furnish a complete laboratory service to the Department of Health and Family Services and the DNR, the relationship between the WSLH and the state agencies is based on effective coordination and cooperation. I think our field staff and lab technicians feel they are very close partners with agency staff and are dedicated to helping the departments do their jobs."
The WSLH-DNR partnership is paying dramatic dividends in the cleanup of the Fox River. Considered to be virtually a dead river in the 1950s, the Fox has become, in the words of avid angler Dr. Sonzogni, "a world-class walleye fishery."
"We've helped make similar improvements in other rivers and lakes throughout the state," Sonzogni added.
The events of September 11, 2001 – and the anthrax scare that followed shortly thereafter – brought another dimension to the work of the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene. In the last three months of 2001, the WSLH analyzed over 600 Wisconsin samples for anthrax – all turned up negative. In the summer of 2002, the WSLH, along with other public health laboratories across the nation, received federal funds from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to better prepare for public health emergencies. The WSLH recruited new staff to facilitate planning, develop protocols, expand analytical capacities, train staff and coordinate activities with other emergency responders.
"The world recognizes, and the state of Wisconsin recognizes, that public health laboratories have a unique role to play in the big picture of creating a safe and healthful place to live for our citizens," Dr. Laessig said.
"We have been successful in transitioning the laboratory from 1903 to 2003, to keep up with the changing situation in which we find ourselves," Laessig observed. "The major job that I see in the director's office is figuring out how to manage change, because public health needs are not going to be the same a week from now, a year from now, or a decade from now. Public health problems are going to be new and different, and we have to figure out how to get from here to there, and hopefully do it in front of the curve."
One last look back
And what of George Bowman and his mysterious sample?
As it turns out, the sample had not been sabotaged, nor was it a prank. The well from which the sample had been drawn had been drilled into a filled-in bog, in violation of state law. The yellow color? Organic compounds, including an extremely high concentration of iron caused by boring through several feet of muck. The putrid smell? Swamp water.
On the advice of the DNR, the well was abandoned. Another day, another improvement in the public health of Wisconsin. And so it goes for the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, as it begins its next 100 years.
Jason Loughrin is a senior chemist at the Wisconsin Occupational Health Laboratory – a part of the EHD division of the WSLH. He is also a copy editor and reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.