I have learned that whether your story is considered a drama or a tragedy is often determined by where you chose to end it. Consider the tale of the Great Stink of 1857, which concluded with the construction of the London sewers, conquering cholera and typhus by pumping the fecal focus eastward to the Thames estuary. It was for the 19th century Londoner a glorious conclusion, the return to the Garden of Eden toilet – flushed out of sight, out of mind. But a mere 50 years later (1907ish) there was so much human crap in the estuary, it was beginning to stink up the entire North Sea.. And a nation that lived on fish and chips began to worry their story might yet turn into a Cockney Oedipus Rex. But England – and the human world - was offered salvation when the British East India Company moved their headquarters from Calcutta to the west coast of the subcontinent.
Over sixty years, beginning in 1687, the civil servants of the British Raj used native labor to transform seven islands into a new city and port, built and organized to English standards, and overwhelmingly occupied and operated by Indians.
By 1890 Bombay was a metropolis of almost a million inhabitants. To Mr. C. Carkeet James, Chief Drainage Engineer for the Metropolitan District, there were “...few if any cities in India of greater interest or higher educational value to students of sanitation.” Along Bombay's wide boulevards and narrow winding streets, trained English soldiers and engineers rubbed shoulders with a rising Indian middle class and uneducated textile workers, and even afflicted beggars. And it was the latter who inspired the so called Lepers Acts.
By the end of the 20th century we realized the only way to contract leprosy is to be in the 5% of the population with the genetic defect that makes you vulnerable to the bacteria leprea or lepromatosis. But as late as the end of the 19th century, leprosy was still one of humanities' most feared infections. Seemingly at random, perfectly healthy individuals would suddenly display skin lesions, which gave the disease its Latin name, lepra or “scaly”. The illness progressively destroyed the nervous system. Extremities would lose feeling. Injuries went unnoticed and untreated, often leading to the loss of toes and fingers, even ears and noses. Most suffers eventually became blind. Long before then, the afflicted were expelled from their communities, unwanted and considered unclean, drawn to the cities where they could at least survive by begging.
Under the various Lepers Acts all sufferers in Bombay were prohibited from handling “any article of food or drink or any drugs or clothing intended for human use, bathe, wash clothes or take water from any public well or tank...drive (or)...ride in any public carriage.” Thus ostracized, most lepers were reduced to starvation, and local police were empowered to arrest “without a warrant any person who appears...to be a pauper leper.” Noted a journal at the time, “One of the results has been to free the city of Bombay from the beggars who used to extort alms by the exhibition of their sores about the public buildings, schools, water tanks, etc.”
Mitigating its cruelty, the act also ordered the creation of leper colonies, where an infrastructure of professionals could feed and clothe the afflicted - “chiefly vagrants and beggars”. And in typical Victorian fashion, the staff also tended to their moral shortcomings by providing work that gave them a sense of dignity and helped to mitigate the expense of their care.
In 1890, in the Matinga section of Bombay , the recently abandoned quarters of an artillery battery, were converted into leper colony dormitories (above). The barracks stood on thick concrete foundations, raising it above the mud and filth. The dormitories for the patients were outfitted with running water, a kitchen and mess rooms.
At the end of May 1891 Mr. W.M. Acworth, local Commissioner for the Metropolitan Asylums Board, informed his sponsors back in England, “With accommodation for 190, I had yesterday 226 inmates, but fortunately a new ward has just been completed, and this over crowding will temporarily cease, though only temporarily. If I had room for 500 I could fill the asylum in a week.” In not much longer than that, maximum capacity was reached, 68% male, 32% female, and about 40 children. But the corporation that governed Bombay resisted fully funding the colony. The first year's monsoon caused the colonies' cesspits to over flow, and the flood of fecal waste from the lepers alarmed the surrounding population. By May of 1892 “The Times of India” observed, “ The Matinga Asylum is seriously overcrowded with lepers... (because of a) lack of rupees...land for the extension of the asylum lie still idle... Unless something is done to remedy this state of things, our streets will again be overrun with homeless lepers, and Mr. Acworth’s labors in the cause of these afflicted people will practically be brought to naught.”
Public and political pressure forced the East India Company to open its purse. With acquisition of the additional land, and additional funding, Mr. Acworth turned to the chief drainage engineer, Mr. James (above, 2nd from left) for a solution to the colonies' cesspit problem . What Mr. C.C. James built was a chemical-mechanical stomach to re-digest the human waste, much the same way a cow's multiple stomachs re-digests their feed.
First, Engineer James built several enclosed 19,000 gallon (settling) ponds. Here the solids sank to the bottom, where the oxygen loving (or aerobic) bacteria converted the poop into a black sludge, and pooped out their own waste, carbon dioxide. This bubbled to the surface, forming a scum which was periodically skimmed off. When the slowing production of scum indicated the aerobic bacteria had eaten themselves to death, the oxygen depleted sludge was pumped uphill into one of several air tight holding tanks, where the slow anaerobic (oxygen hating) digestion began. An American engineering journal cheerfully explained the processes, as if in a new car brochure. “The anaerobic bacteria are provided along with the sewage and practically no difficulty arises in retaining their services on the works beyond providing them with space and time in which to carry out their labors.” Their work reducing the sludge could take up to six weeks at an ambient temperature between 78 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit, all the while pooping out methane gas. And this was where Mr C. Carkeet James showed his engineering skills.
At the Matinga colony the methane was captured, and feed to 3 horsepower 4-stroke methane gas motors (above) designed by German engineer Nikolaus August Otto. The Otto engines required 22 cubic feet of methane per hour to slowly raise the sludge the 8 feet between the settling pools and the anaerobic tanks. As figured by engineer James, each patient produced 3 – 4 cubic feet of methane per day, meaning that on a good day each engine needed 7 to 8 patients visiting the latrine for each hour of pumping – a goal easily met. In fact, so much methane was produced the engines could also provide electricity to light the dormitories.
After 6 – 8 weeks each anaerobic tank was left with a bottom layer of carbon heavy sludge covered by “gray water” - clean but not pure enough for human consumption. The sludge was compressed and used for land fill.
The “gray water” was allowed to cascade down hill, during which it was aerated again, and used to irrigate and fertilize the colony's 6 acre farm. The workers were patients/inmates, who were 84% Hindu vegetarians – and 9% Muslim and 10% Christians. Besides feeding themselves, the bumper crops were sold, and, according to Mr. Acworth, “Profits from the farm wholly maintain 50 lepers located therein”. In 1904 the colony was renamed the Acworth Leper Asylum, and after World War Two, the Acworth Hospital. It still operates in modern Bombay, renamed Mumbi.
The process was not self supportive, but was publicly heralded as an example for the world. But the world did not beat a path to the lepers' back door. It was still cheaper to just dump your poop in the nearest river or bay, even when it occasionally washed right back into your front yard. It was not until the middle of the 20th century that many in the industrialized world began to realize that the Garden of Eden toilet has always been a myth.
According to the World Health Organization, exposure to human waste kills a child somewhere every 20 seconds - 1.4 million dead children each year - “more than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined”. Of the world's 7 billion human beings, over 2 ½ billion are still living surrounded by their own (200 million tons of) poop. World wide, according to author and sanitation authority Rose George, 20% of girls drop out of school because they have no safe place to relieve themselves. “Providing a latrine can mean the difference between illiteracy and education.” Providing every human being with a way to treat, clean and reuse even a high percentage of their poo, would not make humanity self supporting. But it would be a step in the right direction. And in the long run, cheaper than pretending we can clean up the mess by pretending it isn't really there.