John Frederick Wixford, a lifelong resident of north St. Louis, graduated from the city's Central High School and later from the classical and scientific departments of Washington University. He garnered a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University in 1887 and wrote a postgraduate thesis entitled "Chemical Analysis of the Mississippi River Water."
Between 1892 and 1899, according to a statement by Wixford, he "had direct charge of all of the chemical work of the St. Louis Water Department and also of the experimental work relating to water purification." "During these years," noted Wixford, "there was much talk about the Chicago Drainage Canal which culminated in an injunction suit of St. Louis and the state of Missouri against the Chicago Drainage Board. In collecting the evidence for this suit complications arose which forced me to resign my position at the Water Works." In October of 1903 Wixford returned to the Department "at the request of Water Commissioner Benjamin C. Adkins." He left the Department again in December 1905.
That same year Wixford had patented his Wixford Water Purification System for Cities. In the booklet The Chemistry of the Wixford process, probably endorsed if not actually Written by Wixford, the following explanation occurs: "In his investigations he hit upon an entirely new principle in the treatment of water, namely, the addition of lime to the point of approximate caustic alkalinity to waters containing other compounds in varying Quantities." According to Wixford, it was this system that was installed by the St. Louis Water Department at Chain of Rocks on March 22, 1904 and that ensured the provision of potable, clear water to city residents, the 20 million visitors to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (World's Fair), and the many Fair attractions that relied on a large, dependable supply of sparkling water.
Again according to the pamphlet, Wixford's system made Mississippi River water usable without filtration at a cost of only $10,000. Earlier, a Commission of Hydraulic Engineers appointed by Mayor Rolla Wells to investigate the water problem had concluded in its majority report that it was "impossible to procure from the Mississippi River a water supply of satisfactory quality by any method known to them." Their proposed solution involved a Meramec River supply scheme costing $31 million.
Supposed later modifications to the purification process, as well as Wixford's having been a City employee at the time of his work on it, generated much controversy over his right to recognition as originator of the successful treatment system. In 1908 a committee of the St. Louis Chemical Society came down in Wixford's favor.
In 1910 the North St. Louis Business Men's Association appointed a Wixford Testimonial Committee to collect from the citizenry a "tribute of gratitude" to Wixford in the amount of $50,000. Father Charles J. Borgmeyer, Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy at Saint Louis University, was a member of the Advisory Board to the Committee charged with ascertaining Wixford's right to the honor. After the Board decided in the affirmative, an article in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat of February 7, 1912 reported that the Association's resolution supporting Wixford had also been endorsed by the Board of Directors and faculty of Wixford's alma mater, Washington University, by the faculty of Saint Louis University, and by the Academy of Science, the St. Louis Chemical Society, the St. Louis Medical Society, the Engineers' Club of St. Louis, the St. Louis Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, and the St. Louis Bar Association.
In June of 1927 Wixford was reinstated at the Water Department as a chemical engineer and later became consulting engineer, a position he held at the time of his death at the age of 74, apparently of heatstroke, in 1935. He had also been suffering from diabetes. He succumbed in the same three-story brick house at 2223 North Ninth Street in which he had lived most of his life. Ironically, the inventive chemist had refused all modernizations to his home, which remained as it had been when he inherited it. At his death the lighting was still gas, and there was no running water in the house of "Clear Water Wixford."
According to Wixford's 1935 obituary and to officials in the City of St. Louis Water Division over 60 years later, the water purification system that Wixford devised and put into operation days before the World's Fair of 1904 was still being used substantially unchanged.