Wednesday, October 01, 2008


During the early American colonial period, a fisherman noticed bubbles like a string of pearls on the surface of Manila Bay. His curiosity led him to get a taste of it and much to his surprise, he found it to be sweet. He returned to the spot with a priest in tow who was quick to proclaim it a miracle.

Word soon got out about this sweet water; prompting boatloads of people from the nearby Tondo district to come. Most were indeed awed by the sweet-tasting water on the spot where the bubbles were now forming the shape of a cross. They filled bottles with the sweet miraculous water to take home and share with neighbors. Two days later, a major cholera outbreak hit Tondo.

An American physician, Dr. Victor Heiser, investigated the possible cause of the epidemic which led him to the site of the bubbles on the surface of Manila Bay; discovering soon thereafter the cause and what made the surrounding water taste sweet: a busted sewage pipe.

The Miracle of the Water and the Cross
an essay by Ambeth Ocampo
Bonifacio's Bolo
Anvil Publishing, Inc.

© 2008 Señor Enrique
Aperture: F4.2
Shutter: 10/100 sec
Focal Length: 48mm
ISO: 100

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Katherine Mayo's book, Isles of Fear, gives a glimpse of Manila's state of health during the early part of the turn of the century. Below is an excerpt:

When we took over the Philippines, the task of sanitation confronting us was so enormous as to seem impossible. Smallpox was carrying off a regular annual toll of 40,000 persons. Asiatic cholera came in frequent and devastating waves. Infantile mortality--due chiefly to beriberi, which meant malnutrition, and to tetanus, which meant dirty handling at birth, reached 773.4 per thousand. Beriberi among adults killed its multitudes each year.

The city water of Manila was poisonously contaminated and nowhere else in all the Islands was there a reservoir, a pipe-line or an artesian well. In the city cemeteries, four or five bodies were often crowded into a single grave, only to be tossed out a few months later to lie exposed in heaps in the open air.

The city of Manila, with a population of over 200,000 persons, had no sewage system, whatever and lay encircled by a moat among a network of canals, all of which were filled with half-stagnant house sewage constantly stirred about by cargo craft in passage.

No food law obtained and the vilest sort of food products were shipped into the country and consumed there. Dysentery carried off its annual thousands. Leprosy existed everywhere and spread unchecked. For some million wild people living in a primitive state no effective attempt had ever been made to furnish medical relief.

In all the archipelago not one modernly equipped hospital existed. Countless deaths occurred, as well as countless shocking deformities resulting from injuries or sores, all of which could easily have been escaped through ordinary skilled attention.

In the days prior to American control, the maritime quarantine was conducted upon a basis of graft, with the inevitable result that an outbreak of any dangerous communicable disease, like plague, cholera or smallpox, in the nearby foreign countries, meant the early introduction of the disease into the Philippines. There was no proper inspection of animals before slaughter and suitable slaughter-houses where this work could have been done were conspicuous by their absence. Malaria prevailed in hundreds of towns, without quinine being available to combat it. It was no infrequent experience to find imitation quinine pills being sold at fabulous prices in the stricken districts, and the poor populace had no one to whom to apply with the hope of receiving relief. . . .

Sections of Manila having a population of from 5,000 to 25,000, were built up with houses so closely crowded together that there was no room for streets or alleys, and egress from these sections had in many instances to be made by the residents crawling under one another's houses. Manila is located on a tidal flat, and ... at high tide about half the city was inundated. As this flat land consisted of soft oozy mud [and as provisions for human waste were of the rudest if they existed at all] the conditions can be better imagined than described.

There was no governmental provision for the insane, and it was no uncommon sight to see these unfortunates tied to a stake under a house or in a yard, with a dog-chain, and it often happened that during fires, which are so frequent in towns built of ñipa [palm-leaves] they were burned because no one thought to release them. Foods and perishable provisions were sold under most filthy conditions. . . . Tuberculosis was responsible each year for perhaps 50,000 deaths through the archipelago. No effort whatsoever was made to teach the people how to deal with this scourge.

In 1913, after ten years of work, Dr. Heiser was able to report an enormous progress. Not only the six provinces, but every part of the archipelago to which it was possible to convey vaccine in a potent condition had been almost entirely freed from smallpox. Over ten million vaccinations had been performed. Five thousand lepers had been segregated--a thing new in the Orient--and the spread of leprosy had been brought under control. Plague had been completely extirpated.

Cholera had lost its terrors. Amoebic dysentery had been greatly reduced, partly by educational work, partly by the introduction of better drinking water.

Manila had been given a clean and modern water supply and a modern sewer system--the first in the Orient--on which her death-rate dropped more than 1800 annually. Her horrible moat and canals had been cleaned of their centuries' accumulation of sewage. Her streets, that had been channels of filth, were swept daily and her garbage nightly removed, so that she was now one of the clean towns of the world. Crematories had been built and decent cemeteries provided, where the dead, singly interred, might lie in peace till Doomsday.

Wide streets and alleys had been cut through the congested districts, affording light, air and a means of approach, so that garbage carts could get in; and so that, on the appearance of a dangerous communicable disease, the case could be quickly reached and quickly removed to a modern hospital built for that purpose. This detail alone--this making of entrance-ways--effected an inestimable improvement in the health of the city.

A modern insane hospital had been erected in Manila. We had also built a large General Hospital--the best-equipped in the Eastern hemisphere, comparable with the best in Europe or America. Here were treated 80,000 persons a year in the out-patient clinic alone--persons to whom no sort of relief had before been available.

A nursing school, with over 300 young Filipino men and women as students, by 1913 had already graduated two classes. A medical school, under high-class American specialists, was graduating local doctors from sound, stiff courses. A modern hospital had been constructed in the very heart of the wild man's country, where it was doing excellent work.

An anti-tuberculosis campaign had been organized with well-scattered dispensaries; with treatment camps and a mountain hospital for incipient cases; with a hospital in Manila forchronic patients; and with an active educational section that did all that is done in the most enlightened American community.

The jails throughout the Islands had been cleaned, and the loathsome skin diseases of the prisoners cured. Beriberi's cause and cure had been discovered and its huge death-rate cut low.

Food laws had been framed and enforced. Model sanitary markets had been built and the sale of all perishable foodstuffs severely restricted thereto--a provision that gives the purchaser the maximum choice for the minimum effort, that gives the dealer the advantage of close contact with his competitors and that gives the Health Service the advantage of being able economically to control the public food supply with a small inspection force.

And in Manila, first of all the world, was invoked the control of "carriers" in hotels and restaurants--a rule whereby no servant may work in any place where food is sold without a health certificate showing that he is free from germs likely to convey disease.

These few points just enumerated are far from covering the ground of actual accomplishment. But they will show why it was that, during the last four years of the period in question--the period from 1900 to 1913--representatives from Japan, China, Great Britain, France, Holland, Spain--from practically every nation concerned in the Far East--came to the Philippines to study the new methods that had brought about such amazing results. The effect, in many countries, was great. The experiment that their medical experts had laughed to naught, as the dream of an altruist, had been put to the test of practice on a large scale, had stood the trial of years and now wore the crown of indisputable and brilliant success. The medical literature resulting was proving of unequalled scientific value. The example, altogether, was of the sort that enforces a following.

And not the smallest of the results was an indirect one--the drawing together in hitherto unknown friendly council and co-operation of the medical men of all the Far East, to thé great saving, everywhere, of life, effort and human values.

This giant American achievement in the Far East is largely due to the genius, devotion and great administrative ability of one man, Dr. Victor G. Reiser. Dr. Heiser, in the beginning of his Philippine work, set himself the task of saving 50,000 lives a year. When he laid his office down he had bettered that number by an annual 25,000.

Click here for the free online edition of Isles of Fear.

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posted by Señor Enrique at 7:53 AM


Blogger BCS said...

To your main post... like what one of my favorite quotations says:

"If you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

-->"We had also built a large General Hospital--the best-equipped in the Eastern hemisphere, comparable with the best in Europe or America."<--

I can only but utter a sigh reading that.

--->"it was no uncommon sight to see these unfortunates tied to a stake under a house or in a yard, with a dog-chain"<---

Unfortunately, this is still being practiced by some people (as I've seen on TV several months ago).


October 01, 2008 11:22 AM  

Anonymous bw said...

yikes.. the story of the miraculous bubbling water :)

Interesting but the city of Toronto siphons water from Lake Ontario to be purified and chlorinated for drinking and also recycles sewage and dumps it back into the lake as clean water !

October 01, 2008 12:27 PM  

Blogger Senor Enrique said...

Wish the same technology would be put into use here, BW. Perhaps, with such initiative, rehabilitating our esteros and lakes would soon follow.

But know what? There is this German technology that I notice widely used in Manila. That is, instead of flushing the urinals with water, a chemical filter is used instead; thus, saving precious fresh water. The filter just has to be replaced every so often, though. Same chemical technology, perhaps, used in passenger airplanes' lavatories?

October 01, 2008 1:34 PM  

Blogger Senor Enrique said...


According to Ambeth Ocampo, this "sweet water miracle" was also mentioned in Katherine Mayo's book, but in quickly browsing though its pages, I was unable to find it; will give it another attempt another time.

But anyway, this book, 'Isles of Fear' was regarded to be anti-Filipino; nonetheless, her observations of the local folks' penchant for the supernatural may not be entirely unfounded -- such as the case with the priest quickly proclaiming the sweet water of Manila Bay as "miracle."

As for the case of the Philippine General Hospital, well, it might be very well be true in the context of the period/era involved.

And as for the insane people being tied to a stake under the house or yard, sadly, this may still persist in this time and age especially in the remote parts of certain provinces due to a lack of psychiatric facilities. Thank God lobotomy, though, never became popular in the archipelago.

Unfortunately, many more of Katherine Mayo's observations back then may have returned to exist
in Manila. For one, graft continues to persist as well; hence, just recently, a couple of containers of tainted (or had far exceeded its expiration date so as to be safely consumed) flour from China slipped through customs into our shore.

October 01, 2008 1:39 PM  

Blogger BCS said...

"As for the case of the Philippine General Hospital, well, it might be very well be true in the context of the period/era involved."

I suppose so, as I've heard so much about so many things from that era that were as good as, if not better than, those found in the west.

"And as for the insane people being tied to a stake under the house or yard, sadly, this may still persist in this time and age especially in the remote parts of certain provinces due to a lack of psychiatric facilities."

I believe the one that I saw on TV was in a city, though not necessarily Manila.

I believe that there are a lot of things happening around us in the cover of concrete walls, things that are beyond our wildest and darkest imagination/dreams, that have never been witnessed and documented by anybody.

Just like those containers of tainted flour you mentioned about. hehehe... ;)

But then again, this applies to the entire world.

Have a great day (or what remains of it), Senor Enrique. :)


October 01, 2008 4:42 PM  

Blogger Senor Enrique said...

That is true, BCS.

Thanks. This storm made me cancel a much anticipated activity. Oh well ... another time :)

Enjoy the evening!

October 01, 2008 4:54 PM  

Anonymous bertN said...

Is Manila's sewage still discharge untreated in Manila Bay?

October 01, 2008 8:52 PM  

Blogger Senor Enrique said...

I can only guess that Manila has a certain sewage treatment in effect, bertN, but is this discharged at Manila Bay, I do not know. Perhaps, a more informed fellow blogger will share his/her insight.

October 02, 2008 6:22 AM  

Blogger Photo Cache said...

senor, "sweet water" my foot!!! LOL. how funny.

October 02, 2008 6:38 AM  

Blogger Senor Enrique said...

Glad you got a kick out of it, Photo Cache :)

October 02, 2008 7:38 AM  

Blogger JayAshKal said...

Eric is on page 185 of the Isles of Fear. I am conparing the cacique system back then and now and find little comfort that little change has occurred....

One quiet morning years later a fisherman came rushing in from his work in Manila Bay with a great tale to tell. As he bent over his net, he had seen bubbles rising in a steady column from the depths. Looking farther, he perceived that the bubbles, like a crown of pearls, marked the centre of a shadowy cross stretched upon the surface of the sea. Greatly amazed, he had dipped his cocoanut drinking cup into the bubbling stream, tasted it and found it sweet. Sweet water provided in the midst of the ocean! On that, he had sped ashore, aflame with his news. A priest, accompanying the fisherman back to the spot, found the stream and forthwith blessed it, proclaiming a miracle. Then the whole district of Tondo flung itself into small boats. And from that moment no one needed to lead the way, for, day and night, the spot was crowded with human cargoes, awaiting their turn to drink.
Two days later one of the liveliest epidemics of cholera on record broke out in the district of Tondo. Dr. Heiser, grappling with it, quickly discovered the history just narrated. Then he, also, made a little voyage--resulting in the discovery that the unsalted stream and the crown of pearls rose from a cracked city sewage pipe, whose poisonous contents the people in mounting thousands were eagerly drinking down. And so great already was the hold of the thing upon the whole city that Mr. Taft, then Governor, hesitated forty-eight hours before taking definite action, for fear lest an insurrection be provoked."

October 02, 2008 1:41 PM  

Blogger Senor Enrique said...

Wow! Many thanks for having found it, Mario! Much appreciated.

Sadly, many of those old and negative ways observed by Katherine Mayo, are being practiced today. No wonder the Americans were reluctant to hand over the helm to the Filipinos; afraid that the natives may just squander all those developments they had instituted.

Oh, well ...

October 02, 2008 9:08 PM  

Blogger mimi said...

"discovering soon thereafter the cause and what made the surrounding water taste sweet: a busted sewage pipe."


October 06, 2008 2:33 AM  

Blogger Señor Enrique said...

Yup, Mimi ... pretty scary!

October 06, 2008 7:52 AM  

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Life in Manila as observed by a former New Yorker who with a laptop and camera has reinvented himself as a storyteller. Winner of the PHILIPPINE BLOG AWARDS: Best Photo Blog in 2007 and three Best Single Post awards in 2008.


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