George Francis: a pioneer in the investigation of the quality of South Australia’s drinking water sources (1878-1883)

Geoff Codd, Hayley Morton, Peter Baker

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    4 Citations (Scopus)


    In the late 1870s when the quality of Adelaide’s drinking water supply was often raised as an issue in the local press, a local assayer and chemist, George Francis was investigating the mass mortalities of livestock at Milang on the shores of Lake Alexandrina, applying observation and experiment to conclude that the ingestion of toxic scums of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) had been responsible. Cyanobacterial blooms and scums are recognised today as global characteristics of nutrient-enriched waterbodies and present hazards to human and animal health, partly due to their potent toxins. The demonstration that animal deaths can be caused by ingesting cyanobacterial biomass is internationally accredited to Francis who reported his findings in an insightful paper in Nature in 1878. Francis’s observations and inferences remain a cornerstone of cyanobacterial ecotoxicology, and the risk management of cyanobacterial blooms for health protection. Shortly after this research he was asked to investigate water quality at three sources of drinking water, supplying the growing city of Adelaide. In commissioning this work, Adelaide’s Central Board of Health thereby enlisted the services of an astute and perceptive investigator, freshly equipped with the latest knowledge of the toxicity of cyanobacterial blooms, which were common in the nineteenth century, as today. Whilst knowledge and the management of potable water resources have advanced greatly in the intervening 130 years, Francis’s detailed and prompt reports, with interpretation and recommendations, are consistent with and preempted the principles involved in the environmental monitoring of water resources required for water-usage and potable supply today.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)164-170
    Number of pages7
    JournalTransactions of the Royal Society of South Australia
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 2015


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