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.Types of mind and character are apt to recur in families. William Joseph Dibdin had much in common with his great-grandfather, Charles, who wrote:

"Go patter to lubbers and swabs) do you see,
'Bout danger and fear and the like.
A tight-water boat and good sea room give me,
And it a'nt to a little I'll strike.
Though the tempest top gallant mast smack smooth should smite,
And shiver each splinter of wood,
Clear the deck, stow the yards, and house everything tight,
And under reefed foresail we’ll. scud.
Avast! I nor don't think me a milksop so soft
To be taken for trifles aback;
For they say there's a-providence sits up aloft
To keep watch for the life of poor Jack!"

These lines, I think, express very fairly W. J. Dibdin's philosophy of life. An ardent, brave, untiring man, he was too straightforward to study diplomacy, and was, without being aggressive, a fighter .

I first met him in 1894, and the first question he put to me was about Frankland's carbon and nitrogen process, in the value of which he believed to his dying day. I satisfied him and was chosen to work in the old laboratory at Craven Street. He at once impressed one as of a genial disposition, with a hearty and, sometimes, dominant manner which, one realised later, was the expression of a kind heart moved by sincere and compelling convictions. Moreover, however unconventional his chemistry seemed, he always had a clear idea as to what he wanted to find out, a keen eye for a likely road to pursue; and a readiness to adopt any hopeful means to an end.

The tendency many of us suffer from, to let learnedness obscure the real point at issue, never showed itself in Dibdin. He was at his best in attacking a technical rather than a theoretical problem. Whether the moral desire to meet some pressing need or the real love of investigation predominated I cannot say, but both motives were present in a marked degree, and inspired him to unwearying effort.

He was an enthusiastic experimenter, clever at designing apparatus and methods. One may mention the ten candle pentane argand, the radial photo-meter, the micro-filter, and a very good mercury pump for extracting the gases dissolved in water. A keen and able microscopist, his old staff remember with joy how, by an adroit touch of the cover glass, he convinced a rather highly qualified medical microscopist that a supposed desmid was nothing more than an air bubble.

Dibdin entered the service of the London ratepayers in 1877 as a gas examiner; in 1882 he became assistant to Mr. Keates, chemist to the Metropolitan Board of Works, and on the death of that gentleman in 1883, he showed himself so capable as a witness before Lord BramwelI's Commission* that he was appointed his successor. He worked out a scheme for: the treatment of London sewage by chemical precipitants in plant designed-by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, engineer to the Board. After this had been in use some few years a prolonged examination of the water of the Thames from Teddington to the Nore, conducted in 1893-4, showed its beneficial results. The report on this work is a little-known classic. Dibdin was, with Dupre, an early and vigorous exponent of the value of the determination of dissolved oxygen in water, and was, I believe, the first to study the rate of absorption of that gas by water.

He was a pioneer, in this country, of the biological treatment of sewage, and the one-acre coke bed at Barking was of world-wide fame. The variability of standard candles was one of the causes of uncertainty and dispute as to the illuminating power of gas, and Dibdin's 10 candle pentane argand was found by a Departmental Committee, in 1894, to be the most trustworthy and practical standard then available. I t was never prescribed for official testings, as Mr. A. Vernon Harcourt, one of the gas referees, brought out an even better lamp some time after this decision. An exhaustive analysis of the London water supply, of the water of the upper Thames, and of the proposed Welsh supply, convinced Dibdin that the water of the Thames could be brought to a much greater degree of purity than the companies then achieved, and that the grandiose Welsh scheme was unnecessary. Time has shown this verdict to be a vere dictum. Other smaller pieces of work were taken up as occasion demanded. His slate bed filter, which, he felt, did not receive justice at the hands of the Royal Commission on Sewage Disposal, and an investigation on the strength of mortars, were later outstanding pieces of work, but I think he was at his best when working for London.

Dibdin joined the Society of Public Analysts in 1889; he served twice on the Council, and was a Vice-President from 1895 to 1896. Among his numerous communications to THE ANALYST, the following may be mentioned:-"Alkaline Water," (26, 20) ; "The Action of Alkaline Waters on Iron " (30, 238) ; "The Determination of Dissolved Oxygen in Water" (26, 147); "Sewage Effluents" (23, 206) ; " Microscopical Examinion of Water ". (21, 2) ; and "The Analysis of Sewage Debris in Contact Beds" (32, 108).

Official life was difficult for Dibdin. A man of strong convictions, marked individuality and direct methods, he was not always persona grata at Spring Gardens. He was unable to disguise his dislike for the political element predominating on the L.C.C. in its early days. Throughout life it was fortunate for him that his joy was in the chase rather than in the spoils.

Dibdin died on June 9, 1925, in his 75th year, the accident which' accelerated his death being due to an act of kindly thoughtfulness. His wife, who had helped him in much of his work, and all but one of the large happy family of boys and girls whom one remembers in his home at Sutton, survive him. A man of the widest sympathies and interests, he might have said with Terence :

" Homo sum, nil humani a me alienum puto."

J. H. COSTE. .

*Royal CommissionQn Metropolitan Sewage Disposal.


  1. Desmid is a type of algae
  2. In my childhood I had heard a few stories of this man, my Great-grandfather, and how he had invented sewage systems, worked for LCC and fought with people over the river Thames. One such story, now record of which has been found was that he had to insist that a last company did not sell the LCC potassium permangate to clean up the Thames.
    Sadly his failure to often succeed, in the way most people see succeeding, was compared with other members of the family and was relayed to me in a rather pointed way. Reading this obituary, and one other, now at the age of 67, makes me somewhat proud to be a descendant and wish that I had met him or at least had the chance to met my Grandfather, his son Lionel, who emanated many of his qualities.

RG 2010