Water and Food Safety

Content provided by students of the Frontier Program at Kansas State University: 
Clara Wicoff, Danny Unruh, Sarah Jones and Kaitlyn Barnes, under the direction of Justin Kastner, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Diagnostic Medicine/Pathobiology
Faculty member, School of Applied and Interdisciplinary Studies

Born in Pennsylvania in 1862 and later a physician who practiced in Dodge City, Kansas, Samuel Crumbine was a man of curiosity who addressed obvious as well as lurking, not-so-obvious public health problems. His activist campaigns—bearing such titles and slogans as “swat the fly,” “don’t spit on the sidewalk,” and “ban the public drinking cup”—all sought to stop the spread of transmissible diseases. Amongst his many interests, water sanitation was a topic of concern for the well-respected Dr. Crumbine. As a Kansan, he understood that rural water sources could be the source of sickness and disease. In a 1911 article on “The Pollution of Underground Waters” for the Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, he warned that the unwise placement of outhouses and cesspools could cause drinking water to become contaminated. Such contamination was occurring underground and, therefore, was not something that a typical Kansas homesteader would have contemplated. Crumbine warned that the contaminated water would soon find its place down the hill and into a neighbor’s well, which would then be used for gardening, cooking, drinking, and bathing—spread disease!1

A decade later, in 1922, Dr. Samuel J. Crumbine spoke publicly about water during a radio health talk. In his remarks, Crumbine said, “Water and air are so common and plentiful, and generally speaking, available in unlimited quantities, without cost, to rich and poor alike, that we are scarcely consciously aware that they are the most important factors in the maintenance of body health—indeed in the continuance of life itself.”2 Crumbine lamented that “[o]ne of the mistakes that seems to be rather commonly made by many people is the belief that water from wells and from springs is particularly pure and wholesome.”3  He noted that wells and springs are, in fact, not inherently safe, for “the [well or spring water] may come through cracks and fissures of rocks from polluted sources—which is especially liable to be true in the case of springs.”4 A true public health practitioner and man of science, Crumbine insisted that “[e]very well and spring should be protected to prevent surface contamination” and that “f one suspects the water they are drinking is not safe, the easiest way of purifying it is by boiling.”5

Crumbine was concerned not only about water sanitation. During his lifetime, he advocated on a range of food safety issues. Milk safety was one such issue. In 1929, Dr. Crumbine authored The Most Nearly Perfect Food: The Story of Milk. In this book, he wrote the following:

"Milk has been called by its enthusiastic proponents the modern elixir of life. Without dealing in superlatives, it can indeed be said that milk is the most nearly perfect of human foods for it is the only single article of diet which contains practically all of the elements necessary to sustain and nourish the human system." 6

While Crumbine was a proponent of drinking at least one quart of milk each day, his recommendations came with precautions.

"It is a strange thing that nature's most valuable food may at times also be one of the most dangerous. We have long known that milk may become a medium by which serious infectious diseases may be spread, but only of recent years have we had a proper appreciation of the potential danger of disease distribution in uncontrolled and ineffectively supervised milk supplies. When milk is pure, that is, clean and safe, it is indeed the most nearly perfect food, but dirty and contaminated milk is certainly not in that category. The sanitary production of milk is an absolute necessity, not only to enhance its food value, but also for the general protection of the public health." 7

According to Crumbine, this heightened the need for milk processors to embrace pasteurization.8

In addition to milk and milk products, seafood also presented food safety risks on which Crumbine shined a light. In his autobiography, Crumbine described Kansas’s early efforts to regulate seafood transportation:

“In Kansas we had our own experience with sea food at the time oysters were shipped from the East in wooden tubs. Refrigeration was provided by large pieces of ice put in the containers, cakes that melted during the 48-hour journey from the coast to Kansas. So they had to be replaced en route, a duty that devolved on the expressmen. Whether they used clean ice and clean hands was up to them! Meanwhile thousands of Kansans were refusing to buy oysters because of repeated outbreaks of food poisoning. Others complained that oysters were waterlogged and tasteless…”9

Crumbine, the master of anecdotal illustrations, shared the following colorful and alarming event:

“…a former patient of mine, a railway mail clerk, came to tell me about something he had seen happen in an express car, something he felt duty-bound to report… At a certain station it became necessary to re-ice the oysters; a dog was tied next to these tubs; one of them upset; its content spilled over the dog and the floor. One of the two expressmen said, 'Here's a hell of a mess! What are we going to do?' The other replied, 'They say oysters are dumb, so I guess they won't tell if we put them back in the tub.' After that the two scooped up the oysters with their dirty hands and a broom, put them in the tub along with a cake of ice that had been lying on the floor, then fastened the lid on the tub. After this they had a good laugh, rubbed down the dog, and washed their hands. By the time my friend had finished this story I was as mad as a hornet.”10

Crumbine was indeed as “mad as a hornet,” and charged those responsible with violation of food and drug laws; he decried the distribution of oysters adulterated by melting ice (and a non-hygienic “re-icing” of the same oysters). Meeting with the transportation agents later, he urged the use of metal containers (and no longer wooden tubs), insisted that oysters be properly refrigerated, and prescribed other sanitary practices. Thanks to Crumbine’s efforts, “For the first time Kansas consumers now became acquainted with the sea flavor of a fresh oyster.”11

Crumbine’s willingness to take a stand for the safety of water, milk, and other foods was part of his larger commitment to protecting consumers.  He was genuinely concerned for the health of all citizens.  At a meeting of food and drug officials in 1942 (during World War II), Crumbine reminded his peers, “One of the most important phases of our job is to protect the health of the nation, especially that of the children and soldiers, the future of America.”12

A Samuel Crumbine Award for Excellence in Food Protection is given annually to a local health department that exhibits exemplary food handling practices. The 2017 winner was Kansas City, Mo.

1. S. J. Crumbine, "The Pollution of Underground Waters," Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science (1903-) 23/24 (1911).
2. "Radio Health Talk No. IV: Water in Relation to Health," (W.A.J.Q., 1922). p.1.
3. Ibid. p. 5-6.
4. Ibid. p. 5-6.
5. Ibid. p. 10.
6. S. J.  Crumbine and J. A. Tobey, The Most Nearly Perfect Food: The Story of Milk (Baltimore: The Williams & Wilkins Company, 1929). p. 17.
7. Ibid., p. 110.
8. Ibid., p. 135.
9. S.J. Crumbine, Frontier Doctor (Philadelphia: Dorrance & Company, 1948). p. 120-121.
10. Ibid. p. 120-121.
11. Ibid. p. 122.
12. Samuel J. Crumbine, "Pioneering in Food and Drug Law Enforcement" (paper presented at the 46th Annual Conference of the Association of Food and Drug Officials of the United States, Hotel Pennsylvania New York, June 1-5 1942).

Works Cited

Crumbine, S. J. "The Pollution of Underground Waters." Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science (1903-) 23/24 (January 1911): 169-76.
———. "Radio Health Talk No. IV: Water in Relation to Health." 1-12: W.A.J.Q., 1922.
Crumbine, S. J. , and J. A. Tobey. The Most Nearly Perfect Food: The Story of Milk. Baltimore: The Williams & Wilkins Company, 1929.
Crumbine, S.J. Frontier Doctor. Philadelphia: Dorrance & Company, 1948.
Crumbine, Samuel J. "Pioneering in Food and Drug Law Enforcement." Paper presented at the 46th Annual Conference of the Association of Food and Drug Officials of the United States, Hotel Pennsylvania New York, June 1-5 1942.