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Blue Death: True Tales of Disease, Disaster, and the Water We Drink
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Blue Death: True Tales of Disease, Disaster, and the Water We Drink

4.5 2
by Robert D. Morris

With the keen eyes of a scientist and the sensibilities of a seasoned writer, Dr. Robert Morris chronicles the fascinating and at times frightening story of our drinking water. His gripping narrative vividly recounts the epidemics that have shaken cities and nations, the scientists who reached into the invisible and emerged with controversial truths that would save


With the keen eyes of a scientist and the sensibilities of a seasoned writer, Dr. Robert Morris chronicles the fascinating and at times frightening story of our drinking water. His gripping narrative vividly recounts the epidemics that have shaken cities and nations, the scientists who reached into the invisible and emerged with controversial truths that would save millions of lives, and the economic and political forces that opposed these researchers in a ferocious war of ideas. In the gritty world of nineteenth-century England, amid the ravages of cholera, Morris introduces John Snow, the physician who proved that the deadly disease could be hidden in a drop of water. Decades later in the deserts of Africa, the story follows Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch as they raced to find the cause of cholera and a means to prevent its spread. In the twentieth century, burgeoning cities would subdue cholera and typhoid by bending rivers to their will, building massive filtration plants, and bubbling poisonous gas through their drinking water. However, with the arrival of the new millennium, the demon of waterborne disease is threatening to reemerge, and a growing body of research has linked the chlorine relied on for water treatment with cancer and stillbirths. In The Blue Death, Morris dispels notions of fail-safe water systems. Along the way he reveals some shocking truths: the millions of miles of leaking water mains, constantly evolving microorganisms, and the looming threat of bioterrorism, which may lead to catastrophe. Across time and around the world, this riveting account offers alarming information about the natural and man-made hazards present in the very water we drink.

Editorial Reviews

Barron H. Lerner
Morris is no impartial observer. An epidemiologist who specializes in drinking water, he is the author of a controversial paper suggesting that chlorine might increase the rates of several cancers. Indeed, some of his narrative describes his David-like efforts to challenge the Goliaths of water, ranging from the Environmental Protection Agency to the drinking-water industry, which he suggests are cutting corners on water purification to save money. Still, it is hard not to be sympathetic to Morris's claims, which rely in part on the same crack epidemiological detective work used by Snow 150 years ago.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

In this engrossing and disquieting book, the author, who specializes in drinking water epidemiology, raises the alarm about hidden perils in our water. He traces the history of the search for water-borne pathogens from the mid-19th century, when doctors discovered the bacterium that causes cholera (the blue death), to the 20th century, when it was found that chlorination and filtration would block many of the organisms responsible for diseases such as typhoid fever, dysentery and cholera. But today, our water supply is far from safe. Some pathogens elude conventional filters; others are resistant to chlorine; and chlorinated drinking water may increase the risk of certain cancers. Climate change, emerging diseases, toxic chemicals, decaying pipes and terrorism also threaten our water. To dramatize his thesis, Morris describes devastating outbreaks of gastrointestinal disease, such as the one caused by a parasite in Milwaukee's drinking water that sickened 400,000 people in 1993. During the 19th century, doctors had to overcome opposition from those who refused to believe that diseases could be waterborne. Now, epidemiologists and researchers who advocate for tighter controls on drinking water must battle drinking water industry lobbyists who resist regulatory efforts. Morris argues persuasively that unless we do more to protect the water we drink, we court disaster. (Aug.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

In this fast-paced chronicle of waterborne diseases, Morris (emeritus, Harvard Univ., Tufts Univ., & Medical Coll. of Wisconsin) begins with a thorough look at British physician John Snow's 19th-century investigation into the cause of cholera and empathizes with Snow's difficulties in convincing people that water can cause disease. He continues with an examination of French chemist Louis Pasteur and German physician Robert Koch's contributions to the study of cholera. After this lengthy historical overview, he jumps ahead to the mid-20th century, when chlorination created a misguided complacency with the purity of U.S. water. The public's confidence was shattered with the severe outbreak of the parasitic disease cryptosporidiosis in Wisconsin during the early 1990s and the discovery of possible links between chlorinated water and certain types of cancer. Following a detailed account of why chlorination or filtration alone is not enough, Morris concludes with suggestions for creating a safer water supply. A clear and convincing argument; recommended for public libraries.
—Tina Neville

Kirkus Reviews
Cholera, whose victims' blood is so viscous from dehydration that oxygen-deprived tissues turn blue, is just one of the scourges of contaminated drinking water vividly described in this collection of cautionary tales. Morris, a Seattle-based M.D. with a Ph.D. in environmental engineering, approaches water systems like an engineer, disease outbreaks like an epidemiologist, and the people and events behind waterborne disasters like an investigative reporter. This occasionally leads to florid writing of the "little did he know..." variety, but more often the effect is riveting. The author begins with the story of pioneering doctor John Snow, who persuaded Victorian authorities to remove the handle of London's Broad Street pump to stem a cholera epidemic. They did, but cholera returned again and again because the so-called "sanitarians" didn't believe water carried invisible organisms and were sure their new sewer systems guaranteed the public's health. Not until Robert Koch isolated and identified the comma-shaped bacillus that caused cholera would filtering systems and later chlorination become standard means of safeguarding drinking water. Neverending vigilance is a must, declares Morris, offering accounts of more recent disasters such as a 1993 outbreak of cryptosporidiosis in Milwaukee and a Canadian irruption of E. coli 0157:H7 in 2000. Only massive shipments of bottled water, he remarks, spared New Orleans from a post-Katrina waterborne plague. Cholera continues to be a threat in the developing world, especially when natural or manmade disasters trigger massive movements of people. The author highlights other disturbing portents: the prospect of climate change disrupting global watersupplies; the fact that most cities are served by century-old rusting and leaking pipes; evidence of chlorine-resistant bacteria; turf warfare between water companies and public-health agencies; and reluctance on the part of regulators like the EPA to impose stiffer standards. Makes a convincing case that more attention must be paid to our water supply. Agent: Nat Sobel/Sobel Weber Associates, Inc.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.42(w) x 9.26(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Blue Death
Disease, Disaster, and the Water We Drink

Chapter One

The Blue Death

As John Snow stood on the streets of York and bid farewell to his father, the air swirled with traces of spring, the odor of horses, and the ever-present reminders of bad sanitation. He climbed aboard the waiting coach with the few items of clothing that his father's meager income could provide, food that his mother had prepared earlier that day, and the improbable hopes of his parents.

The crack of the driver's whip bisected the life of young John Snow. His childhood dissolved into memories as the carriage rattled off the cobblestones of York to the ringing beat of horses' hooves. As he bounced north along the turnpike to Newcastle, his future began.

In time John Snow would reshape medical science, invent the fundamental tools of epidemiology, and redefine our relationship with drinking water. But in that moment, he was just a fourteen-year-old boy, alone in the shadows of the carriage. Through its window, he watched the landscape of the familiar disappear. The year 1827 offered no time for the indulgence of adolescence. He would not see his parents again for seven years.

Snow had come of age amid the poverty that hugged the banks of the River Ouse. As the son of a laborer, he might well have expected to spend his life in a hardscrabble neighborhood like the one into which he had been born. The river brought ships and barges and the opportunity for work, but it was grueling, physical labor that could grind a man to the bone with little chance for advancement. All manner of vermin, human as well as animal, scurried along theriverside. For a child, danger lurked in every darkened corner of the district.

One of the greatest hazards was the river itself. It routinely overflowed its banks, leaving behind dankness and rot. When it stayed within its course, many of the Snows' neighbors along North Street routinely drank its water, oblivious to the hazards it carried.

John's chances of escaping the filth and disease that clung to the working poor in Edwardian England were slim. If the daunting financial, physical, and social realities were not enough, Fanny Snow, the illegitimate daughter of a Yorkshire weaver, was heavy with her eighth child when she put her oldest son on that carriage to Newcastle. The simple demand of supporting such a large family would seem to extinguish any hope of escaping their place at the bottom of the economic ladder. The Snows, however, were not an average working class couple and John was far from a typical son.

The journey to Newcastle began when a six-year-old boy walked down Far Water Lane, turned down a narrow alley, and, for the first time, entered a remarkable world. There in the single room that comprised the Dodsworth School in St. Mary's Parish, John Snow's insatiable drive to understand took root. John Dodsworth, a York ironmonger, had founded three such schools to offer education to the city's poor. The school Snow attended offered only twenty spots for boys between the ages of six and fourteen, selecting only the most talented and deserving children. With three parishes vying for just three or four openings each year, John may well have been the only child from the parish of All Saints Church chosen that year to attend. At Dodsworth School, he could learn to read and write free of charge. Arithmetic, his favorite subject, cost extra.

This was a fortuitous beginning for the bright young boy. For the eight years he attended, his parents not only made do without the assistance of their son, but also scraped together the extra money for his foray into math and science. Once he had completed those early years of schooling, he was ready to take a remarkable next step. John Snow would become a doctor.

The carriage rattled north across the English countryside for twenty-one bone-jarring hours before John Snow rolled through Gateshead, crossed the River Tyne, and rode into Newcastle. The view out the carriage window was unlike anything he had ever seen. The young man from York stared out at the grand metropolis. Great sailing ships lined the river, waiting to carry away the coal that powered the engines of the world and the booming economy of Newcastle. Ahead, on a hill, the castle keep stood watch over the bustling city as the spires of St. Nicholas and All Saints Church pierced the industrial sky.

The carriage left him in the heart of the city. From there John Snow walked up Westgate Street in the shadow of the thick stone tower of St. John's church. There on the hillside, far from the filth and stink of the river's edge, lived the city's well-to-do. He had never seen such fine houses. Now he would live in one. For the next four years, he would stay in the home of William Hardcastle, just across from the church. A surgeon apothecary who had begun his practice in York before moving to Newcastle, Hardcastle was now among the most prominent doctors in the city. For a fee of one hundred guineas, he had agreed to take on Snow as an apprentice.

It seems likely that a hidden hand nudged open the door of opportunity to admit John Snow. The apprenticeship fee alone, roughly thirteen thousand in today's dollars, would have dissuaded even the hardest-working laborer in 1827. Even with the fee in hand, it seems unlikely that an established surgeon would have taken on a poor boy from York as an apprentice. But more than five thousand miles away, in the jungles of South America, John Snow had a friend.

For three years Charles Empson had traveled deep into the Andean rain forest riding mules and small boats hundreds of miles into what would become Colombia. He had braved snakes, poisonous insects, and well-armed thieves and had dined on everything from roast armadillo to tortoise hash. He had come with the engineer Robert Stephenson to search the region's abandoned gold and silver mines for business opportunities.

The Blue Death
Disease, Disaster, and the Water We Drink
. Copyright © by Robert Morris. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Dr. Robert D. Morris is an internationally recognized expert in the field of drinking water and health. His work has been featured throughout the media, including Dateline NBC, the New York Times, the BBC, and The Times of London. He lives in Seattle, Washington.

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Blue Death: True Tales of Disease, Disaster, and the Water We Drink 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
gives an in depth account of the effect of waterborne pathogens on society. very entertaining.