Account of one of the worst typhoid outbreaks in American history.
Dekok (Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire, 2009) re-creates an epidemic that ravaged Ithaca, N.Y., for four months in 1903, killing 82 people, including 29 Cornell University students. Some 1,300 others contracted typhoid but survived. In a generally engaging but overly detailed narrative, the author sets the scene by describing life in the pleasantly prosperous town of 13,000, where most students lived off-campus and drank city water in their boardinghouses. In an era before government regulation, businessman William T. Morris, owner of the Ithaca Water Works, decided not to go to the expense of building a filtration plant, which allowed water provided by his company to become contaminated. Morris “simply didn’t care,” writes Dekok. Investigators discovered that the typhoid bacilli entered the water supply from the excrement of immigrant Italian workers at a reservoir construction site. One or more was apparently a carrier of typhoid, for which there was no cure until 1949. Before long, one in 10 Ithaca residents were ill, the city’s medical facilities were overrun and about 1,000 Cornell students fled for home. Two camps of opinion formed: One was furious that Morris had not taken steps to keep his water pure; the other (including Morris and the local establishment newspaper) insisted the epidemic was not so bad and the water company had no responsibility. In fact, courts then rarely held water companies liable for deaths caused by their water. With victims laid up in hospitals and at home, noted sanitation engineer George A. Soper ended the health crisis through aggressive disinfection of the city’s boardinghouses and outhouses. Health insurance was a rarity. Cornell trustee Andrew Carnegie stepped up to cover the devastating medical costs of victims, living and dead. Morris’s corporation evolved over ensuing decades into General Public Utilities Corp., which owned the Three Mile Island nuclear plant.
This tale of “criminal stupidity” would have had far more impact as a long-form magazine article.