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Petra, Stockmann's daughter, returns from the school where she teaches and hands over the eagerly awaited letter to her father. Dr. Stockmann reads the letter in his study and then rejoins the others in a triumphant mood. He declares that the baths are not healthy places, but a poisonous and "pestiferous hole." He claims that the water in the baths is contaminated by the filth from the mill. The letter he has just received has confirmed his suspicions. During the last year, the doctor had noticed that many of his patients had fallen ill after visiting the baths, suffering both from typhoid and gastric attacks. His tests of the water showed them to be contaminated; as a result, he sent samples to the University for analysis. Their analysis confirmed the presence of "putrefying organic matter in the water - millions of infusoria." The water is dangerous to one's health whether used internally or externally. Hovstad seeks Dr. Stockmann's permission to put a short announcement about the discovery in the Messenger. Billing suggests that there should be a torchlight procession in honor of the doctor for his discovery.
Dr. Stockmann wants to get rid of the contamination by re-laying all the water pipes. It was his brother, the Burgomaster, who had played an active role in laying the incorrect pipes. The doctor seems happy to have caught his brother in a mistake. The act ends on a light note when Dr. Stockmann puts both his arms round his wife's neck and whirls her around with him.
Act I is largely introductory in nature. The two main characters, Dr. Stockmann and his brother, Peter the Burgomaster, are presented on stage and developed. The Burgomaster, a restless bachelor, obviously resents his brother's success; he comments that he would rather dine economically on bread and butter than on extravagant roast beef. It is further learned that the Burgomaster is a representative of the Old World order and fears a person who asserts his individuality. Additionally, he believes it is the duty of the authorities to watch over the welfare of society. Proud and power-hungry, Peter Stockmann does not want to give up any of his authority as Burgomaster.
Dr. Stockman is a real contrast to his brother. Although he has suffered a hard life like Peter, the doctor refuses to let his past haunt him. He has become a successful and jovial doctor who likes to live in style and be surrounded by young, bright people with liberal views. He particularly enjoys the company of Hovstad, the editor of a daily newspaper, and Horster, captain of a ship. Politically, he is conscientious and believes in protecting the welfare of society, no matter the cost.
The seeds of the conflict are also introduced in this act, as it becomes apparent that there are problems between the two Stockmann brothers. First, Dr. Stockmann does not confide in his brother, a fact that the Burgomaster resents. Secondly, although the idea of the baths was conceived by Dr. Stockmann, his brother wants credit for implementing the scheme, for he is Chairman of the Baths Committee. When the Burgomaster learns that his brother has written an article about the baths for the newspaper, he wants to know the contents. When Dr. Stockmann refuses to let him see the article or even be told what it is about, Peter is quite irritated. The Burg-master then becomes furious at his brother's refusal to consult him on a matter of public importance.