Wilfred Langelier is known as a pioneer in water chemistry, and he got his start at the University of Illinois and the Illinois State Water Survey. He is most famous for developing the Langelier Saturation Index, a tool he created to determine if water is corrosive or scale-forming, based on the chemistry of the water. When flowing through pipes, scale formation within pipes and corrosion of metal pipes are common problems still today and affect water quality in sometimes harmful ways. Langelier developed the index while at the University of California, Berkeley, and it is described in his famous paper “The Analytical Control of Anti-Corrosion Water Treatment.”
But before he was a professor changing the world of water science and sanitation, he was a chemist at the Illinois State Water Survey and a graduate student at the University of Illinois. In June 1909, Langelier began working for the Illinois State Water Survey as a chemist. He had just graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. He worked with the Illinois State Water Survey and was advised by Professor Edward Bartow, the Water Survey's first director. In 1911, Langelier earned a master’s degree in chemistry, completing a thesis titled “Some investigations concerning water supply conditions in Illinois.” He continued to work with the Illinois State Water Survey until 1916, when he was invited to work with Professor Charles Gilman Hyde at UC Berkeley and develop a sanitary engineering program there.
The Illinois State Water Survey Bulletin report for 1911 shows that Langelier was promoted to chemist and inspector at the Illinois State Water Survey. The 1911 Bulletin report also shows that Langelier traveled a lot for work at the Illinois State Water Survey, visiting 11 inspection sites over the one-year period. He worked under the supervision of Edward Bartow to create a report in the Bulletin as well.
Langelier was also an active student on the U of I campus, attending the first annual Agricultural Ball and the Military Ball in 1911 and the first annual Chemistry Dance and the Military Ball in 1912. He was elected the leader of the Mandolin Club in 1911. The club coordinated performances with the Glee Club and even traveled to California. The Mandolin Club and Glee Club performed in December 1911, which was promoted as the “chief post-prom event” in the Daily Illini. Besides being active with his club and social nights on the town, Langelier is listed as being a member of four fraternities during his time at the University of Illinois. He was a member of: Gamma Alpha and Alpha Chi Sigma professional scientific fraternities, Phi Lambda Upsilon chemical fraternity (until becoming an alumni member in 1914), and he was elected into Sigma Xi honorary scientific fraternity in 1914.
His time at the University of Illinois and working with the Illinois State Water Survey influenced his interest in water chemistry, especially water sanitation. While Langelier is famous for his Langelier Index, he was most interested in water coagulation and flocculation. Langelier and his wife had no children together, so they set up scholarship funds at the three universities Langelier was affiliated with, including the University of Illinois. This gracious gift continues today and reminds us of his dedication and his love of sanitary and environmental engineering, which can continue to flourish.