Engineering, still the Invisible Profession in a World Driven by the low Bid

By Tom Davey

Engineering, still the invisible profession in a world driven by the low bid

"It was not our enlightened crusaders who brought light to the masses, it was Thomas Edison. It was not our intellectuals who ended the insularity of isolated communities, it was Henry Ford and the Wright brothers. For the people in the street, Kodak did more to make them aware of pictures than Rembrandt and all the museums put together!" Thomas Sowell

Such perceptive observations are regrettably rare in a society which is increasingly unappreciative of, even hostile to, the benefits of technology. Ironically, the tangible results of engineering are easily the most visible of all the learned professions. Elegant bridges span wide rivers, while office buildings reach toward the heavens which themselves are crowded with planes girdling the world at prices working people can now afford. Factory workers may fly to Australia, while working folks down-under may fly to visit Rome, London and Paris. Many commonplace luxuries would be unimaginable three generations ago.

Beneath our complex urban centres, tens of thousands of commuters arrive at their destinations swiftly and safely thanks to subway systems carved out of the earth. Their comfort and safety are further enhanced by complex electrical, electronic and mechanical equipment, and reliable rolling stock. Subway accidents, when they do occur, are so rare they generate headlines for days.

While medical research takes credit for our increasing lifespans, it was engineers who helped wipe out killer diseases such as typhoid and cholera. Canadians are protected by drinking water plants, polluton control facilities and sophisticated flood control schemes, which are always in a constant state of evolution and refinement, a fact few critics appreciate.

Until recently, few had even heard of cryptosporidium or giardia, but engineers quickly developed a range of options to deal with these minute killers, including membranes and advanced disinfection.

None of these vital services would be possible without the design skills and innovative technology of the engineering profession. None of the learned professions, including architecture, comes even close to providing such tangible evidence of its contribution to society. No other profession matches its contribution to increased life expectancies.

Yet the general public, so very much aware of the persona of our leading actors, television anchormen, newspaper colunists, academics, lawyers, and even architects, is almost totally unaware of the engineering professionals, who provide society with such a vital array of services.

I fervently believe that water engineers have saved more lives through chlorination, ozonation, and other water treatment techniques, than all the miracle drugs put together. In the Ontario of the 1880s, 18 out of 1,000 persons suffered from cholera, typhoid or similar diseases, with mortality rates higher than those of many European cities. Within living memory, many deadly water-borne diseases, now thankfully rare, regularly ravaged the population.

Thanks to great engineering pioneers such as Thomas and Samuel Keefer, Willis Chipman and Dr. Albert Edward Berry, great strides were made in environmental engineering technology at the turn of the century, dramatically reducing the terrible death rates. Although many of Thomas Keefer's water pumping stations were built before the turn of the century, at least one is still in mint working condition near Hamilton, Ontario.

Dr. Berry, who died in 1984 shortly after turning 90, was probably the most honoured environmental engineer of all time. His national and international distinctions and awards are too numerous to list in this space. As both engineer and public health professional, he waged a protracted struggle to promote the use of chlorine in Ontario, as well as the compulsory pasteurization of milk. This Canadian was decades ahead of his time, a fact American experts were quick to recognize. Dr. Berry is still the only person ­ American or Canadian ­ to have been elected President of the American Water Works Association and the Water Environment Federation.

The world knows that Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin and that Dr. Christiaan Barnard did the first heart transplant. Yet Dr. Berry, whose work saved countless lives, remains unknown outside a diminishing number of engineering and health professionals. Even when he died, the media largely ignored the passing of this environmental legend, while giving generous coverage to routine colourful parades and demonstrations, which can be seen virtually every week.

Canada's national newspaper, the Globe & Mail, joined with the CBC in ignoring the passing of our greatest environmentalist, while devoting generous coverage, that same weekend, to the death of the French film director, François Truffaut.

Clearly they felt that the death of a foreign film-maker ­ albeit a distinguished one, who directed 22 films in his lifetime ­ was a more important event to record than that of a Canadian scientist, teacher and engineer, who had saved countless thousands of lives, while also protecting our environment. Such anonymity epitomizes what is regrettably, but unquestionably the invisible profession ­ engineering.

Excerpted from an after dinner address given at the Annual Conference of the Consulting Engineers of Ontario, May 13, 1998, in Niagara Falls, Ontario.