An urban legend

The story goes that sometime in the 1890s, arriving in Sulina, at the confluence of the Danube and the Black Sea (Map 1), Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands (1880–1962, r. 1890–1948) asked for some water. She got a glassful of dirty water taken from the river itself, as drunk by the local population. Allegedly sympathetic to such a vulnerable community, the queen and the Dutch Royal House donated funds to build the town’s water treatment plant (Fig. 1) and sewage system. The origins of this story remain unknown, and the historical sources I have consulted include no mention of a cruise along the Danube taken by the Dutch sovereign. The anecdote is however established well enough in the local community to be mentioned on the Sulina municipality’s official website and popularised by numerous articles showcasing the cosmopolitan roots and the multicultural heritage of what is now the European Union’s easternmost town (Van Assche, Teampău 2009).

Map 1
figure 1

Sulina on the map of South-Eastern Europe

Fig. 1
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The Sulina waterworks, 1931 (Source: SJGAN, CED/SG, 445/1931)

What is however true about this urban legend is that by the late nineteenth century Sulinites drank muddy water drawn directly from the Danube, and that there was a growing international concern about supplying the town with clean drinking water. A settlement of about 10,000 inhabitants, Sulina was Romania’s busiest port; located at the mouth of the only navigable branch of the Danube, it held a strategic position along South-Eastern European transportation corridors, being the gateway of Lower Danubian trade and shipping. But Sulina was also a hydrobiological melting pot of natural and anthropogenic water flows carried by the Danube, the Black Sea’s currents, and the tanks and bilges of the thousands of ships that came to load their cargoes in the local harbour and roadstead. With the Danube as the main access route for the spread of epidemics to South-Eastern Europe, provisioning Sulina with safe urban water became a Romanian and international public health priority.

Investments in the town’s water supply and sanitation are a fascinating, yet little-known episode of sanitary internationalism, and this paper aims to show how several actors in Romania and Europe cooperated – institutionally, technologically and financially – in the attempt to bring sanitary civilisation to one of Europe’s most crucial commercial and epidemiological gateways. It is this international dimension that makes this case study particularly relevant: Sulina was the operational headquarters of a pioneering international organization, the European Commission of the Danube, an agency of several of Europe’s Great Powers. Described as a ‘collective colony’ that emerged from the Commission’s ‘collective imperialism’ over its liquid jurisdiction (Iordachi 2010, Ardeleanu 2020, 267–307), Sulina was an object of both dispute and cooperation between the Romanian authorities and the Commission. Supplying the town with clean drinking water was such a topic.

In line with previous explorations of the interaction between water, disease and urban infrastructure in a peripheral (quasi-colonial) context (Afkhami 1998; Ramesh 2021), I will also focus on the growing debates in Romania around the quality of water within the context of the larger hygiene movement. The rhetoric of ‘improvement’ and ‘progress’ in providing access to safe drinking water, stemming from the idea that ‘uncleanliness with all its consequences comes mainly from a lack of water’, was accompanied by calls for the construction of modern water infrastructure. It was high time for the hydraulic engineer and the water plumber to replace the water carrier, and for modern science and technology to solve issues derived from old and unhealthy habits (Felix 1903, 1039–1041).

Such discourses and policies resemble the authorities’ interest in urban hygiene and sanitation, processes visible in cities throughout Europe and beyond at the turn of the twentieth century. With epidemic diseases hitting hard the larger urban centres, governmental and municipal authorities responded, given the growing mistrust in old quarantine measures, through increased reliance on urban hygiene and modern sanitation services to deal with, among others, water supply, sewage treatment or waste management. The relationship between health, hygiene and sanitation has long been studied by water historians, given that access to clean and reliable water was key for sustaining urban growth, economic development and the ‘standards of civilisation’ (Hamlin 1990; Winiwarter 2000; Rautenen et al. 2010; Niemi 2016; Winiwarter et al. 2016).

In terms of structure, I will briefly refer to Sulina’s history in the nineteenth century, with details on several political and economic factors that turned the town’s location and function into an issue for international sanitary diplomacy. Then I analyse the circumstances in which Romania turned its main maritime port into a paragon of the government’s commitment to modern hygiene. With direct involvement from the top of the public health establishment and with funds directed from the Danube Commission, building a modern water treatment plant in Sulina is an equally interesting example of the challenges that came with transferring modern technology and building infrastructure in a periphery.

Politics, economy and public health in Sulina

Political control over the Danube Delta region (Map 2) changed often during the modern age, yet Sulina’s role as a crucial transportation hub only strengthened. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the rich grain harvests of the Romanian principalities made their way to the international market via the inland ports of Brăila and Galați; at the same time, the small settlement of Sulina, annexed in 1829 by imperial Russia from the Ottoman Empire along with the entire delta, became particularly important for Europe’s food security. Navigational obstacles created by the sandbanks that formed naturally at that river mouth were exacerbated by a transnational network of ‘entrepreneurs’ who capitalised on the settlement’s location. Huge fortunes were earned under the protection of allegedly corrupt Russian officials appointed to serve in what was an eccentric inter-imperial borderland. The ‘Sulina question’ became an acute diplomatic conflict in the late 1840s, when Western merchants and shipowners accused Russia of using its control of Sulina to virtually shut down Danube navigation, for the benefit of ports in the empire’s Ukrainian provinces (Correspondence 1853, Focas 1987).

Map 2
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The Danube Delta, 1867. (Source:

At the end of the Crimean War (1853–1856), the Danube Delta returned to the Ottoman Empire, and the European Commission of the Danube (an international organisation that reunited delegates representing the seven signatory powers of the Treaty of Paris) chose Sulina as its seat at the river mouth where hydraulic works were to improve navigation through that critical transportation chokepoint. Gradually, Ottoman Sulina took on an increasingly ‘European’ character as the mandate of the Danube Commission got extended and delegates allocated funds for ‘civilising’ a town where dozens and hundreds of the organisation’s employees and their families lived and worked. In 1878, following the Treaty of Berlin, the Danube Delta was granted to Romania, while the Commission was to function in ‘complete independence’ from Romania’s territorial authority. The Commission retained the numerous benefits and immunities that it and its employees enjoyed in Sulina (La Commission 1931, Ardeleanu 2020, Gatejel 2022). A complex hydraulic program coordinated by the Commission’s engineers beginning in 1856 had greatly increased the depth of the navigable channel, but the transition of the global fleet from sail to steam meant that more and more of the large grain carriers no longer sailed up the Danube to Galați or Brăila, but loaded their cargoes in Sulina’s harbour and roadstead. Thus, in late nineteenth century, thousands of seagoing vessels and rivercrafts involved in the prosperous Danubian grain trade called at Sulina. In 1896, for instance, the port was visited by 5,345 maritime and fluvial ships with 38,718 people in their crew; in 1897, the number of ships decreased to 5,028 (Felix 1899, 76).

Sulina owed its prosperity to the muddy waters of the Lower Danube, but the same muddy waters were also constantly eroding its inhabitants’ health. This was not so much due to the waste discharged into the Black Sea by one of Europe’s largest rivers, but mainly due to Sulina’s own frail structure. The settlement had been built up gradually, by claiming new plots of land from the neighbouring marshes and by protecting the town against the river’s once devastating floods. Somewhat better defended from ‘lateral’ overflows, Sulina was vulnerable to deltaic underflows. In 1893, Iacob Felix (1832–1905), director of the Sanitary Service within Romania’s Ministry of the Interior, the country’s most important health official at that time (a sort of ‘health minister’), described Sulina as some kind of a floating town, steadily eroded and poisoned by the groundwater below. The very shallow dry land on which the town was settled did not allow cellars or pit latrines to be built, and special regulations were enforced for burials. ‘Houses are partly built on pillars driven into the ground, latrines are of a faulty construction, and all the soil is infiltrated by the town’s organic waste, which cannot be properly separated; there’s a circulation, an unceasing exchange between the dirty liquids in the town’s underground and the water from the Sulina (Danube) canal, which the inhabitants drink’ (Felix 1893, 13).

The Danube brought prosperity and disease to Sulina in equal measure. But threats were coming not only from the river’s muddy waters. Given its geographical position and economic function, the port was Romania’s busiest commercial gateway and the main access route for epidemics spreading to South-Eastern Europe. Epidemiologists in the late nineteenth century distinguished between two main routes for the transmission of epidemic diseases from the Far East, where the plague or cholera survived in an endemic state. One was the maritime route, via the ports of the Suez Canal, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Turkish Straits; the other was the land route, via the territories of imperial Russia, from where it spread to the major urban centres of Europe. Through its extensive economic ties with Istanbul and Mediterranean ports, Sulina was directly exposed to the dangers of contamination carried by ships coming to load Romanian grain. At the same time, Sulina’s proximity to Bessarabia and the Ukrainian provinces of imperial Russia, as well as the cross-border mobility of the largely Slavic fishing communities in the Danube Delta, meant that it was equally vulnerable to terrestrial importation (Tălășescu 1901, 7–12).

Public health at Sulina was thus an explicit priority for all the polities controlling what was a busy hub for travellers, goods and epidemics heading towards the South-Eastern European hinterland. Throughout the nineteenth century, imperial Russia, the Ottoman Empire and Romania imposed strict quarantine measures at Sulina, which most often meant coming into conflict with the local and international business circles interested in maintaining an absolute freedom of trade and navigation. After 1856, the Danube Commission defended the same economic principles, demanding that sanitary measures should not affect the principle of freedom of navigation along an international river. Considering, with an Orientalising bias, that the local (Ottoman and later Romanian) sanitary authorities were incompetent and corrupt, European commissioners and bureaucrats attempted to subordinate the Sulina sanitary service (Ardeleanu 2022). With its post-1878 independence from Romania’s sovereignty, the Commission reached a compromise with the government in Bucharest whereby the sanitary service was recognised as a Romanian institution, but the sanitary fees paid by merchant ships at Sulina were collected and spent through the Commission’s supposedly more trustworthy administration (Burghele 1893, Docan undated).

Epidemics, water and international health diplomacy

Sulina’s vulnerable position was no secret to those with a stake in controlling the Danube Delta. The cholera outbreak of August 1865, killing at least 300 of the town’s 3,000 inhabitants (Brătescu, Cernovodeanu 2002, Ardeleanu, Drăghici 2019), was a stark reminder of the devastating effects of epidemics in such isolated communities. In the wake of this human disaster, the Ottomans imposed even more severe quarantine restrictions, which continued after Romania’s takeover of the Danube Delta.

In 1892, a new choleric wave reached Europe. Traveling overland via Afghanistan to Russia, cholera reached Moscow in July 1892, whence it soon spread further west, reaching a famous peak of virulence in Hamburg (Jackson 2013). Romania imposed harsh preventive measures by setting up terrestrial and maritime quarantines at all its border crossings. At Sulina, for example, merchant ships coming from contaminated regions such as Russia were subjected to an 11-day quarantine, reduced to five days for postal and passenger ships, and also for merchant ships coming from clean ports. With Sulina lacking a proper sanitary port, Russian rivercraft purged their quarantine in the Sulina branch, several miles upstream from the town (Panaitescu 1931, 52–53). Such harsh quarantine conditions led to a diplomatic dispute with Russia after a Romanian warship opened fire on the Russian cruise ship ‘Olga’, which had allegedly violated sanitary laws in force at Sulina (AMAE, Vol. 276).

When, in March 1893, the eighth international sanitary conference convened in Dresden to coordinate a transnational response against the new epidemic threat, public health in the Danube Delta was one of the main topics of discussion. The issue was raised by imperial Russia’s first delegate, Alexandre Yonine, who considered that the sanitary regime of the Sulina arm, an international territory similar to the Suez Canal, should be regulated by a multilateral agreement (Protocoles 1893, 20–22). Grigore Ghica, Romania’s delegate and ambassador to Berlin, defended his country’s exclusive right to design and enforce sanitary policies on its sovereign territory; participants, however, decided that the issue should be discussed in a sub-committee made up of delegates of the riparian states and of other concerned governments (Protocoles 1893, 57–58). The sub-committee, which included epidemiological luminaries such as Robert Koch, Richard Thorne Thorne and Adrien Proust, concluded that there was a significant difference between Suez and Sulina as waterways: the latter, a freshwater river, was the only source of drinking water for the communities living along its banks and especially for the population of Sulina. Preventing cholera germs from infecting the Danube’s waters was crucial for those people, which motivated the imposition of strict sanitary restrictions at the Sulina river mouth. Eventually, the Dresden Convention of 15 April 1893 stipulated that various measures were to be taken to improve Sulina’s sanitary facilities, recommending that the town be supplied as soon as possible with the drinking water needed by both its inhabitants and the crews of the thousands of ships navigating through the region (Protocoles 1893, 154–156, 161–166).

It took Romania several years to ratify the Dresden Convention, but medical experts on the Bucharest Superior Sanitary Board, the country’s source of science-based public health policy, recommended as early as 30 April 1893 that the government should update sanitary regulations in line with the ‘progress of medicine’. This was the local version of the transition from quarantinism to sanitationism (Baldwin 1999, 10–24). As noted by Felix, who had served as Romania’s technical delegate at the Dresden Conference, modern states could not be ‘hermetically sealed’ off from one another and rationality called for softening the all too harsh restrictions that the national economy could no longer afford. Land quarantines were abolished, while fluvial and maritime quarantines were greatly reduced. An increasing emphasis was placed on prevention and diagnosis, with more rigorous sanitary inspections and the disinfection of ships arriving from contaminated ports. Such actions were to be accompanied by investment in sanitation and public hygiene. Sulina was on the frontline of this new preventive ethos, and the Romanian authorities set up a special committee to improve the town’s sanitation, with specific proposals for hygiene education, the construction of latrines, and the supply of ‘less tainted water’ to the population (Felix 1893, 6–9).

In 1892 Romania had managed, at great economic costs, to be spared from cholera. But, with the new sanitary doctrine adopted in late April 1893, the country feared the worst. And indeed, in July 1893, the first cholera patient was documented in the Danubian port-city of Brăila. Sulina soon followed, at a time of peak economic activity, when about 2,000 seasonal workers were employed in the prosperous transshipment of grain cargoes. These mostly foreign workers ‘were poorly housed, crowded into filthy collective dwellings’, Felix later recounted, so the authorities’ preventive actions were doomed to fail. A porter of Armenian origin, Cazar Agdjan, who had arrived from Istanbul a month earlier, was the first documented cholera patient in Sulina, falling ill on 22 July while loading grain on the British ship ‘Venice’, which had arrived from Marseille. A Russian woman, Maria Ivanov, living in another part of the town, followed on 23 July, then the Greek Mikhail Vlasopolu, working as a porter onboard the Greek steamship ‘Adelfi Crisoveloni’, also arriving from Marseille. Cholera spread rapidly, peaking on 28 July, when 38 people, scattered throughout Sulina, fell ill. Despite recent progress in bacteriology, epidemiologists, both in Romania and internationally, were still divided over the ways in which the bacteria that caused cholera were transmitted. Local doctors in Sulina blamed the poisonous miasmas onboard the ships that had arrived from cholera-stricken Marseille. But to Felix the 1893 Sulina outbreak was a perfect demonstration of the role that drinking water played as the main vehicle for contamination. Completely dependent on the river for its water supply, Sulina was hit especially hard: 155 people (121 men and 34 women), out of a total of 319 documented cholera patients died in two months (July-September 1893) (Felix 1893, 14–15). Beginning with July, thousands of Sulinites fled the city, most definitely contributing to the spread of the deadly disease to other parts of Romania and beyond (Informațiuni. Holera 1893). It was therefore imperative that rapid improvements in the supply of clean drinking water at Sulina be made. This was necessary not only in the interest of the local community, but also in that of Romania and of ‘civilised Europe’ itself.

Transferring technology and building infrastructure in a periphery

By 1894 the authorities in Bucharest had already initiated the project of supplying Sulina with drinking water. Prussian engineer Ernst Jebens, director of the waterworks in Galați, was entrusted with drafting the technical and financial plans. Jebens worked closely with Romania’s Danube commissioner, Colonel Eustație Pencovici, and proposed a plant fitted with sand filters to purify water from the river. The project was not accepted by the Technical Board of Romania’s Ministry of Public Works, which wanted to first determine the availability of fresh groundwater sources within the Danube Delta. Another issue for the rejection of Jebens’ project had to do with the waterworks’ planned output, given conflicting data on Sulina’s population. Jebens submitted an updated proposal (three plans, a cost estimate and an explanatory report) in July 1895, and he was also willing to take on the actual construction of the water treatment plant, cautioning against the employment of an unexperienced entrepreneur for crucially sensitive work designed to alleviate serious public health hazards (SJGAN/CED/RD, 27/1895, 1–2, 4–5, 27–31).

The Technical Board reviewed the updated project in its meeting on 6 September 1895. The Romanian engineers agreed with the technical solution (sand filters), as no fresh groundwater had been found, but they requested further changes to the construction in order to increase the waterworks’ output. By February 1896, the government eventually approved Jebens’ requests for additional payment, and the Prussian engineer was invited to submit updated plans for the Sulina waterworks (with a daily capacity of 250 m3). In March, however, Jebens was further requested to draft a second project, based on the technology of artificial stone slab filters, as used in the German town of Worms (SJGAN/CED/RD, 27/1895, 35–37, 74–75; 29/1897, 28).

The uncertainty surrounding Sulina’s waterworks mirrored larger national debates on the transfer of Western know-how and technology and the impact thereof on water treatment technologies in Romania. Felix was instrumental in both defining national standards in water purity (based on the German model) and in finding suitable technical solutions to be implemented in line with the financial means of the target communities. Sand filters had been the preferred technology, but by the mid-1890s Felix seemed particularly impressed with the system recently introduced in Worms. The waterworks in the Upper Rhine town used vertical artificial stone plates, a technology that came with the significant advantages of requiring less space and being more resistant to winter frosts. Not least, the system had lower installation and maintenance costs and was simpler to operate (Felix 1903, 1030–1032).

Felix and Jebens visited Worms in the spring of 1897 to inspect the waterworks there and probably arranged for the acquisition of that technology (Felix 1897a, 101–105). The construction of the Sulina plant was put out to tender in July 1897 and the contract was signed a month later with two Romanian contractors. The cost of construction and supervision was estimated at 380,000 lei, a substantial discount on the cost of the original project (SJGAN/CED/RD, 29/1897, 95). But the plans were updated several times, after it was decided to increase the number of filter plates and change the structure of the decanter. In the end, the plant was completed in 1900 for a total cost of about 635,000 francs (SJGAN/CED/RD, 33/1900, 4–7).

But money was hardly a problem for the Romanian authorities, given that the expenses were paid from the rather plentiful sanitary fund administered by the Danube Commission. Growing rifts had emerged between Romania and the Commission over how the proceeds of the sanitary fund were to be used, but everyone agreed that completing the Sulina waterworks and complying with the recommendations made in the 1893 Dresden Convention (and repeated in the 1897 Venice Convention) were urgent tasks that were worth the investment (SJGAN/CED/RD, 31/1908, 4; Panaitescu 1931, 55–59).

Located on the right bank of the Danube, just outside the town, the waterworks were a remarkable construction (Filip 2010) (Fig. 1). The water tower, 30 m high, was by far the tallest building in the Danube Delta, a beacon of modern technology and infrastructure dominating the scenery and providing a truly bird’s-eye view of the labyrinthine region around. Ethel Greening Pantazzi, the Canadian wife of a Romanian navy officer quartered in Sulina, recounted the emotion of climbing to the top of the tower, from where she could see ‘through field-glasses a great network of lakes, canals and islands’, a fascinatingly ‘monotonous landscape’ through which the ‘brown river’ was silently flowing towards the Black Sea (Greening Pantazzi 1921, 115). The engine house, with its powerful machines sucking water from the Danube and pumping it through the filter house and into the water tower, must have been an equally impressive technological wonder amongst those ‘limitless fields of green, enfolding a thousand hidden recesses, surging with life’. The waterworks’ latrine itself, an installation connected to the newly built water system, was yet another prototypical facility that announced a new age of modern sanitation in one of Europe’s peripheries (Filip 2010, 132).

Quantifying water purity

By the time Jebens was hard at work completing the plans of the Sulina waterworks, advances in bacteriology brought another pioneering preventive measure against the spread of deadly epidemics to the Danube Delta. This measure had to do with the growing professional prestige of Victor Babeș (1854–1926), one of the most respected experts among Romania’s new generation of medical scientists. After studying in the medical schools of Budapest and Vienna, Babeș followed practical training in Paris and Berlin in the laboratories of Louis Pasteur, Victor André Cornil and Robert Koch. In 1887, Babeș moved to Bucharest for a professorship at the local University, where he also set up an Institute of Pathology and Bacteriology. To him, too, the 1893 cholera outbreak proved the importance of improving prevention in the country’s main maritime gateway, where modern science and technology were to strengthen Sulina’s, Romania’s and Europe’s defence against epidemics. A bacteriological laboratory was established in Sulina in June 1896, fitted with material and human resources provided by the Institute in Bucharest. The laboratory was set up by one of Babeș’ most diligent disciples, Gheorghe Proca. Since August 1896 it was managed by a young medical assistant, Gabriel Robin. The facility was intended to ‘justify on solid scientific grounds’ the sanitary measures enforced on ships coming from contaminated ports and to rapidly diagnose, in Romania’s most advanced medical outpost, suspected cases of epidemic disease (Robin 1896, 350–352).

For Proca, Robin and several other young bacteriologists who followed them, Sulina was a perfect laboratory for studying the role of water in disease mobility. Water from around the world reached the Danubian port in ships’ tanks and bilges. In less than four months in 1896, Proca and Robin studied the drinking water and bilgewater of 51 ships coming from cholera-stricken ports such as Egypt’s Alexandria and Port Said, specimens based on which they investigated the viability of cholera bacilli in sterilised and unsterilised bilgewater (Robin 1896, 352–354).

At the same time, the team of doctors was also just as busy conducting bacteriological analyses of the Sulinites’ drinking water. Detailed exams were carried out in calm weather, when dirt and decaying organic matter remained near the banks of the Danube, but also when the prevailing North-Eastern wind stirred the river’s waters and scattered the floating organic matter on the surface. Proca and Robin collected water samples from different parts of Sulina and beyond its limits. Quantitative bacteriological analyses showed that while the water in the middle of the river contained a relatively low number of microbes that varied very little across the town (128–153 microbes per cm3), the water close to the banks, in contrast, was heavily infected, reaching up to 2,170 microbes per cm3, with the dirtiest water found in those very sites where it was collected by local water carters (Robin 1896, 354–357). While the prevailing wind usually helped to somewhat homogenise microbes in the water mass, there were cases in which the opposite happened. A gastroenteritis epidemic in 1895 had apparently been favoured by the weather: the Danube had been unusually low that year, ‘and prevailing easterly gales drove large quantities of sea water containing much of the sewage of the town up to the spot from where its drinking supply is usually taken. The resulting mixture was both unpalatable and unwholesome’ (Diplomatic 1896, 6). The blend of unhealthy liquids spread to other ports around Europe, with medical authorities in Germany announcing that many of the typhoid fever cases recorded in Hamburg arrived on ships coming from Sulina (Felix 1897b, 40).

The completion of the Sulina water treatment plant was an excellent opportunity to see the purification machine at work. But, by 1901, information from the waterworks engineer and the local bacteriologist alluded to some malfunctions, as the microbial analysis of filtered water revealed results that did not match expectations. Proca, who had meanwhile specialised in water bacteriology and was chief bacteriologist of the Bucharest sanitary service, was sent to Sulina to inspect the waterworks. In April 1902 he devised several tests, in order to understand what was not working properly. In his report, Proca insisted on the various technical solutions that differentiated the Sulina plant from its model in Worms. The main issue, he believed, had to do with the plant’s most crucial element: the artificial stone filter plates, which, at 7 ½ cm thick (compared to 20 cm in Worms) were too thin to retain bacteria or fine dust. The whole edifice was founded on a faulty piece, making it inferior, in terms of water purification results, to some of the most rudimentary sand filters. Following his experiments, Proca made several recommendations (lower pressure filtration, changes to the raw water intake, securing bigger water mobility through the town’s pipelines), but such measures could bring only minor improvements to a structurally defective system (Proca 1902; Felix 1903, 1032–1033).

A blame game followed in what seemed to be a serious disgrace to Romania’s prestige. Felix blamed the engineers in charge of the construction, who had omitted to properly test the filter plates beforehand, to ensure they were appropriate and confirmed to expected standards (Felix 1903, 1032), while the engineer who supervised the works reported he could do nothing, as the plates had already been purchased (Radu 1903, 18). But to Babeș the problem came from Felix himself and his methods of choosing technical solutions without solid preliminary studies. Imposing the Worms system in Sulina had been an ambition that resulted in ‘unnecessary expenditure’; the water issue, Babeș believed, could not ‘be treated as a matter of personal or political ambition, but must be considered first and foremost from a scientific point of view,’ i.e., ‘by listening to the scientists’. (Babeș 1906, 14–17).

By the early twentieth century Sulina had a very expensive water management solution, but one with a faulty filtering system. With a construction cost of more than 2,000 lei per cubic meter, it by far exceeded any other water plant that was designed at the time in Romania (770 lei at Vaslui, 350 lei at Brăila, 340 lei at Botoșani). At 0.60 lei per cubic meter, Sulina water was much more expensive than the water filtered at Vaslui (0.20 lei), Brăila (0.10 lei) or Botoșani (0.07 lei) (Radu 1903, 88). As the filters were unable to purify the sediments that the Danube had accumulated along more than 2,850 km on its way to the Black Sea, the operators of the Sulina water treatment plant sometimes stopped the filtering process altogether and supplied the local population with water pumped directly from the decanter. As one source put it, announcements were made informing the local inhabitants that supplied water should be boiled, making the plant an ‘illusive facility’ (Ionescu 1909, 269). Water was delivered throughout the town, all the way to the Commission’s hospital in its easternmost part. A standpipe system was used, with spouts available at regular sites. Special facilities were available in the local harbour, for the needs of ships and seafarers.

Ozone, electricity, water

In spite of all these setbacks, the Romanian authorities remained determined to provide Sulina and the seafaring community with drinkable water. It was a promise made during several international sanitary conferences, and it was crucial for local, national and European public health. By the early twentieth century, ozonation seemed to be the best available technology to fit to Sulina’s needs and possibilities, especially as an electrical plant was being set up via a similar national-international and public-private partnership (Felix 1903, 1033–1034).

Babeș claimed paternity for the idea of introducing ozone purification to Sulina, a system that was said to reliably kill the pathogens that cause cholera, typhoid fever, dysentery and, according to his own research, various other types of ‘waterborne microbes’. Ozone was a solution for sterilising even highly contaminated, foul waters, but Danube water had first to be decanted, given the quantity of sediments it carried. Collaboration with one of the most respected French companies working in the field, Compagnie Générale de l’Ozone, was mediated by Ioan Cantacuzino (1863–1934), another influential Romanian doctor (Ionescu 1909, 263). Cantacuzino graduated in Paris in 1895 with a thesis on cholera and then worked at the Pasteur Institute as an assistant to immunologist Ilya Mechnikov. Returning to Romania in 1901, he received a professorship at the University of Bucharest, and by 1907 was appointed director of the Romanian Sanitary Service. His own research and further epidemic threats in that year, when cholera was raging in the Russian Empire, pushed him to complete an investment which still needed financial and bureaucratic support.

Some changes were made to the Sulina waterworks’ plans in order to accommodate the new technology after the ozonisation installation arrived from France in late 1907. Special sand filters were installed, and following various other problems and readjustments, ozonated water was supplied to Sulinites starting with September 1909. The difference in quality was readily visible in the bacteriological reports issued by the local laboratory: prior to that date, the filtered water taken from taps around town contained an average of 2,580 colonies per cm3, with no evidence of bacillus coli communis or of other pathogenic micro-organisms; water did contain microbes such as staphylococcus aureus, short and large bacteria with characteristics of thermophilic bacteria, and microorganisms with characteristics of bacillus liquidus. Ozonated water, however, contained only four colonies per cm3, without any pathogens (Panaitescu 1931, 76–77).

But the transformation of Sulina’s water from the dirtiest into the best in the country, as a Romanian navy officer put it (Ionescu 1909, 268–270), went beyond such purely statistical bulletins. The purity of ozonated water could be smelled, felt, tasted. Visiting Sulina in 1910, Romanian writer and historian N.A. Bogdan was attracted by the waterworks’ tall tower and imposing building. Invited to visit the plant by its chief-engineer, Bogdan was delighted by ‘the electrical engine room, the water decanters, the spraying and ozonisation installations’. The visitor was shown ‘some cabinets with electrical equipment I had never seen before’, with the air around giving him the feeling of being on top of a mountain. Cleaned of all the dirt thrown into the river along its long and meandering course, ozonated Danube water, taken with a spoonful of cherry sherbet – a traditional welcome for one’s guests in Romania – tasted ‘admirable, adorable’ (Bogdan 1910, 120). To some, this ozonated water even began to feel addictive, making it difficult to enjoy water supplied from other sources (Ionescu 1909, 265).

By 1910, running the waterworks was concessioned for a ten-year term to Adam Jijie, the engineer managing the local electrical plant (Panaitescu 1931, 78). In 1913–1915, the water distribution system was extended to cover the dwelling houses and the Commission’s technical workshops on the left bank of the Danube, an investment covered with money from the Commission’s sanitary fund and with technical assistance from the organisation’s new Danish resident engineer, Eugene Magnussen (SJGAN/CED/RD, 53/1913, 49–50, 52–54, 77–78). To keep the facility up and running, the Sulina waterworks received a subsidy from the same fund, so by the start of the First World War clean drinking water was provided at Sulina to the local population and the international seafaring community alike.

It had taken two decades to build the waterworks, but to all parties involved their usefulness was clearly visible during the cholera outbreak of 1913. More than a thousand Turkish refugees arrived in Sulina in August – September 1913, displaced by the effects of the Second Balkan War. The first convoy included 96 cholera patients, 22 of whom died while isolated in the local lazaretto and the Commission’s hospital for infectious diseases. With extensive bacteriological investigations of suspected cases and with the supply of local clean water, the town was spared (Panaitescu 1931, 83–84). This amounted to a huge payoff for the costly investments that both the Romanian government and the Commission had been making in building preventive sanitary infrastructure on the Lower Danube.


The case of the Sulina waterworks is illustrative for discussions in Romania around the quality of water in the context of the larger hygiene movement and the insights brought to the fore by bacteriology. The 1892–1893 cholera outbreak was a game changer in how medical elites in Europe and Romania referred to the need to make sure that communities throughout the country had access to clean water sources. Sanitary authorities started to extend hygiene propaganda to some of the most vulnerable communities and pushed larger urban communities to build, with local funding, modern waterworks. But this was easier said than done. If by 1894, according to Felix’s report, municipal public water services existed in only six Romanian urban centres, mostly supplying low-quality filtered water (Felix 1894, 292–310), a decade later seven (out of a total of 35 county ‘capitals’) had centralised water systems: three of them were considered as working properly, whereas four had issues with the quantity or quality of the water supplied to those communities (Proca 1905, 262).

As Romania’s most important port and a crucial European transportation hub, Sulina posed a special problem. Merchants and shipowners ran hugely profitable businesses, but the local municipality relied on a meager budget, given the many fiscal and customs exemptions that the Commission had managed to preserve for the local inhabitants. At the same time, the Commission administered the sanitation fund, money with which the Romanian government aimed to fulfil one of the promises that Romanian delegates had made during the 1893 Dresden conference: that of providing Sulina with drinkable water for the needs of both its inhabitants and the international seafaring community.

Interest in safe drinking water came with a new understanding of the role that rivers played as accumulators and conduits of urban ‘liquid dejections’. By the late nineteenth century, sanitary authorities started to analyse this relationship. As Felix put it, flowing waters such as rivers were part of the public domain: ‘they belong to everyone, and riparian inhabitants do not have the right to pollute the water, which is used by other municipalities downstream, to kill fish living in the water, to poison the water with toxic waste from certain industries, to infect it with the secretions and excretions of the sick, rich in germs capable of spreading disease’. Still, authorities could not do much given the lack of legislation, but also because of more important geographical or economic factors. While the river received ‘colossal quantities of putrescible matter from Europe even before it reached Romania’s borders’, it was nevertheless large enough to permit for ‘spontaneous purification’, though this was possible only when the proportion of organic matter in the water was relatively low. Thus, ‘within a variable distance from the place of contamination, the water has become relatively clean again’ (Felix 1894, 310–311). Sulina’s geographical position, in short, made it vulnerable not so much to pollution flows carried along the Danube’s long course, but rather to contamination from anthropogenic water discharged from the tanks and bilges of the thousands of ships transiting the town or coming to load their cargoes in the local harbour and roadstead.

Planners were interested in providing Sulina with waterworks that could be managed with the scarce human and financial resources available in a peripheral town. So as to encourage the most vulnerable segments of the local population to drink it, the water was provided free of charge (Sfetescu 1913, 82) and the waterworks’ expenses were covered with a consistent financial subsidy paid from the Commission’s sanitary fund. The results, it seems, were indeed visible in terms of public health: in 1911, a newspaper article mentioned that, after the completion of the ozone installation, ‘dysentery, typhoid fever and other water-derived diseases have almost completely disappeared’ (Petra 1911). The Canadian expat who lived in Sulina for some months made similar allusions to the almost complete eradication of typhoid fever and dysentery, effects related to ‘the water [being] carefully filtered and oxygenated’ (Greening Pantazzi 1921, 125).

Indeed, by the beginning of the First World War, the Sulina waterworks seemed like a success story of how national and international partners worked together on solving a public health emergency that threatened more than the Sulinites’ lives. Problems with the administration of the waterworks would return in the interwar and post-war periods. But, beyond this, the waterworks’ building itself stands to this day in the European Union’s so far easternmost point as both a fully functional water installation and a symbol of European cooperation in a European periphery.