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James M. Symons was born in Champaign, Illinois, and completed his secondary education in Larchmont, New York.  He was granted the B.C.E. degree (with distinction) in Civil Engineering from Cornell University in 1954, and the S. M. and Sc.D. degrees in Sanitary Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955 and 1957.

He was on the faculty at M.I.T. from 1957-1962, teaching in its graduate sanitary engineering program.  From 1962-1982 he worked for the federal government, first for the Public Health Service, then for the Environmental Protection Agency.  Here, his research focused on all aspects of drinking water, source water quality control, treatment for the removal of organic, inorganic, and particulate contaminants, and distributed water quality.  Since the problem was discovered in 1974, Dr. Symons has been working on preventing the formation of carcinogenic chemical by-products during the disinfection of drinking water.  During this time period he received 12 national awards, including the Silver Medal for Superior Service, and the Distinguished Career Award from US Environmental Protection Agency and the Research Award from the American Water Works Association. 

In 1982, he joined the University of Houston and when he retired was Cullen Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering.  He is now Cullen Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Civil Engineering.  Dr. Symons was department Chairman from 1985-1989 and Director of the Environmental Engineering Program from 1983-1985 and 1989-1994.  He taught both undergraduate civil engineers and graduate environmental engineers.  Dr. Symons was awarded the 1992-93 Chi Epsilon Excellence in Teaching Award for the Southwest District, was voted the Outstanding Teacher of 1994 (tie with another faculty) by the student chapter of the ASCE.  He received an Outstanding Teacher Award from the Cullen College of Engineering in 1994 and 1996.  In 1996 he was awarded the Esther Farfel Award in recognition of his teaching, research, and service.  It is the highest award a University of Houston faculty member can receive. 

Dr. Symons' research, while covering many topics, focused on the most important drinking water treatment process, disinfection.  Based on his contributions, in 1994 he received the Sigma Xi Outstanding Faculty Research Award, the Senior Faculty Research Award from the Cullen College of Engineering, and was elected to the National Academy of Engineering.  Because he had been researching the subject of the formation of chemical by-products during the disinfection of drinking water from the beginning, to tie this issue together, Dr. Symons made a video tape "1974 Revisited: An Historical Review of the Disinfection By-Products Issue" and published the paper, Symons, J.M., "The Early History of Disinfection By-Products: A Personal Chronicle," Environmental Engineer, 37, Part I (1) 20-26 (Jan., 2001), Part II (2) 7-15 (Apr., 2001).

For the past 40 years he has been active in the American Water Works Association (AWWA) where he is an honorary member.  For AWWA, he completed The Drinking Water Dictionary, definitions of technical drinking water terms, that was published by AWWA in March, 2000.  In November 2009, AWWA published the 2nd edition, retitled The Water Dictionary.  Dr. Symons was Editor Emeritus for this edition.  It is available from AWWA.

To communicate his knowledge to the public, he wrote the popular AWWA book Plain Talk About Drinking Water.  This factual, but non-technical book has sold over 137,000 copies since publication in 1992 and the fifth edition is now available from AWWA.

In anticipation of his retirement June 30, 1997, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering organized a Technical Symposium on Disinfection By-Products in his honor presented on March 20, 21, 1997.  A book based on this symposium and edited by Dr. Philip C. Singer was published by AWWA in June 1999 and is now out of print. 

In 2003, he was awarded the Edward J. Cleary Award by the American Academy of Environmental Engineers.  And, in 2006, Jim received the prestigious Abel Wolman Award of Excellence from AWWA.

Jim and his wife Joan have three children: Andy is Studio Manager/Marketing Director for The Lodge in Indianapolis, Linda is a technical writer/editor in Bloomington, Minnesota, and Julie is a psychotherapist in private practice in Beaumont, Texas.  They have five grandchildren, Heather (a sound technician at Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis-I.U.P.U.I), Stephen, Brian, Mackenzie and Morgan.  His father, President AWWA 1973-74, died July 10, 2001.  The paper on the history of environmental engineering on which he was working when he died was a valuable contribution to the literature.  His mother died on April 26, 2002.  In July, 1997, Joan and Jim relocated to the Rosedale Golf and Country Club, 4942 88th Street East, Lakewood Ranch, Florida 34211-3730, 1/2 mile east on SR 70 from the intersection of I-75 and SR 70 (Exit 217).

E-mail: dr.water@alum.mit.edu

This page was last updated on 11/16/2009