| Humble scientist still impacting water treatment, 40 years after death
AWWA Articles

Humble scientist still impacting water treatment, 40 years after death

Before Alvin Percy Black died in 1980 at age 84, he told his family that his crowning achievement would be dying with all of his teeth.

“He just knew fluoride was so important for teeth,” said Betsy Black Latiff about her grandfather, who, among countless contributions to water research, advocated for adding A.P. Blackfluoride to the nation’s water supply. “He wanted to continue doing research about fluoride’s impact on bones. He thought it would also strengthen bones if it helped teeth that much.” (Photos courtesy of the Black family)

A.P. Black (pictured right) was an influential member of the American Water Works Association (AWWA), serving as its president in 1949, as well as an internationally recognized expert in water and wastewater treatment. One of AWWA’s most prestigious research awards is named in his honor, recognizing outstanding contributions to water science and supply.

Next June, Betsy Black Latiff will attend AWWA’s annual conference and exhibition (ACE20) in Orlando to present the A.P. Black Research Award.

“He believed in AWWA and its mission his whole life,” she said. “AWWA stood for the same things he believed in, preservation of water and keeping our natural resources pure.”

A.P. Black was born in Texas in 1895. He served in the U.S. Army’s Chemical Warfare Service during World War I, later studying at Harvard and earning a Ph.D. in water chemistry from the University of Iowa. For the next five decades, he worked as a University of Florida professor, writing or co-authoring hundreds of technical papers, and receiving countless awards for his contributions to the study of water purification and distribution.

But to his family, he was a humble, patient man, who loved teaching and researching. During the Great Depression, Black would hunt waterfowl in the Paynes Prairie, returningA.P. Black to school with dozens of birds. He’d discreetly leave the game outside his office door for hungry students to take home, said A.P. Black’s grandson, Rusty Black.

“I remember going to a conference with him, and people were attacking him about fluoride and telling him that he was poisoning people,” Betsy Black Latiff said. “This was during the McCarthy era, and putting chemicals in your water was a pretty radical move for that time. But he knew the science and he believed in his research.”

Today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers water fluoridation one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the 20th century.

Betsy Black Latiff’s brother, Rusty Black, remembers joining his grandfather one afternoon to collect Okefenokee Swamp water for coagulant and treatment testing. Usually they brought glass jars, but this time they had something new: collapsible 5-gallon jugs. They left a few bottles on shore and rowed out to collect samples. When they returned, the extra jugs were gone.

The next week, he said, they learned that moonshiners had been arrested with their fancy new jars.

“He thought that was pretty funny,” Rusty Black said.

In addition to his career as a professor, A.P. Black worked as a chemist consultant for several different agencies. At one point, the U.S. Army hired Black to study the use of iodine for water purification. He would tie a pair of pantyhose full of iodine tablets to his grandson Rusty Black’s leg and have him swim around a motel swimming pool. Then he’d collect samples to gauge its efficiency. “My feet were orange after doing that,” Rusty Black said with a laugh. “I’d have duck feet.”

Charles Black)A.P. Black shared his interest in water supply and treatment with his son, Charles Black (pictured left). A civil engineer with a Florida water supply facility named after him, Charles Black served as AWWA’s president in 1971 and spent almost six decades in the water industry before his death in 1997. His daughter, Betsy Black Latiff, said he was concerned about keeping groundwater and natural springs clean, and he had an interest in desalination technology.

He was an influential civil engineer in his own right, earning countless awards and recognition for his contributions to the field of water treatment. “He stood up for the things he believed in, especially water conservation,” Betsy Black Latiff said. “You can’t live without water. He just believed it could become very limited if we didn’t use it wisely.”

She remembers a trip Charles Black took to the Soviet Union on behalf of the Nixon Administration to share ideas about water treatment. Her fatherBlack Laboratories wasn’t welcomed with open arms; instead he was met with blank, rehearsed answers. 

“They even found a bug in their room, listening to everything they said,” she said.

Both A.P. and Charles Black dedicated their lives to supplying people with clean, reliable water service.

“I’m quite proud of them because they gave their hearts to something that would benefit all people,” Betsy Black Latiff said. “They were dedicated to what they believed in.”