The Epidemic

Erica Zabowski

It was one of those times and one of those places where people were so focused on their own desires, plans and accomplishments that it was easy to disregard simple, basic needs.  In 1903, Ithaca, NY -- already a major academic center noted for its scenic beauty and progressive spirit -- became the site of a horrific outbreak of typhoid fever. 

More than a thousand Ithaca residents fell ill.  The disease did not respect position or status.  Nearly eighty people died, including 29 students at Cornell University.  The entire community lived in fear and suffered in mourning.  Until now, the entire story of the epidemic of 1903 has not been told, but in "The Epidemic: A Collision of Power, Privilege and Public Health", historian and investigative journalist David DeKok, with access to documents previously unavailable, examines the medical and social dimensions of the epidemic with attention both to broad trends and microbial detail. 

At the time, Ithaca had the distinction of more physicians per capita than any other city in New York State. Cornell University was striving to be an egalitarian institution but, as Mr. DeKok points out, major decisions were made by the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees, "a small, often parochial group of Ithaca businessmen" who sought to advance their personal interests through the university.  The need to improve the Ithaca water system opened a business opportunity for members of the Treman family and William T. Morris to add the Ithaca Water Works to their ownership of Ithaca Gas Light Company.  With financial help from Cornell trustees, the Water Works began construction of a large dam on Six Mile Creek.  The site did not provide proper sanitary facilities for the work crews and soon human waste was polluting Ithaca's drinking water.

Typhoid is an especially cruel disease and DeKok points out that although a cure for the illness would have to wait for the development of antibiotics half a century later, through the work of Dr. Robert Koch in Germany by 1903 the causes for the spread of typhoid and methods of control had already been developed.  But in a time of slower communication and reluctance to adopt practices already common in Europe such as water filtration, Ithaca unknowingly put itself at risk.

Part of the problem in 1901 was that American courts almost never held water companies liable for deaths caused by water they delivered to customers, so there was no financial incentive to improve.  Anyone who did bring a lawsuit faced daunting hurdles, having to prove first, that the water company intended to defraud or deceive the public about the quality of its water; second, that it was guilty of criminal negligence; third, that there was doubt that the water was the cause of death; and finally, that the victim had not negligently contributed to his or her own demise by drinking the water in the face of public knowledge that it was polluted.     -- from "The Epidemic"

Yet while the death count mounted and the city tried to force residents to boil their drinking water, for some members of the community life continued as normal and even fashionable social events went on as scheduled.  Meanwhile, parents wired their sons and daughters at Cornell to return home and some universities accepted Cornellians temporarily into their classes for the 1903 spring semester.

"The Epidemic" brings back both mood of the times and the characters involved, from the beleagured Cornell president Jacob Schurman (who brought matters under control "in spite of himself") to sanitarian George Soper, who was assigned to Ithaca by the New York State Department of Health after having dealt with an even bigger crisis in Galveston, Texas.  DeKok also sheds light on the local media of the time, and on his own research material, by comparing coverage of the epidemic by the reticent Ithaca Daily Journal and the more crusading Ithaca Daily News, whose managing editor was a young Cornell graduate, Frank Gannett.

David DeKok is a prize-winning investigative journalist who has lately specialized in books about crises in small-town America, most recently "Fire Underground: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Centralia Mine Fire".  "The Epidemic" is envisioned as the first in a trilogy dealing with the history of General Public Utilities Corporation, a successor to Ithaca Water Works and owners of the nuclear power station at Three Mile Island.  Mr. DeKok joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to respond to questions and comments from listeners.  To join in the discussion, call during the live 1:00 PM broadcast to 888/359-9754 or send an e-mail to OffThePage@WSKG.ORG.

Guests: 
David DeKok