The Epidemic: A Collision of Power, Privilege, and Public Health / Edition 1

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The Epidemic tells the story of how a vain and reckless businessman became responsible for a typhoid epidemic in 1903 that devastated Cornell University and the surrounding town of Ithaca, New York. Eighty-two people died, including twenty-nine Cornell students. Protected by influential friends, William T. Morris faced no retribution for this outrage. His legacy was a corporation—first known as Associated Gas & Electric Co. and later as General Public Utilities Corp.—that bedeviled America for a century. The Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 was its most notorious historical event, but hardly its only offense against the public interest.The Ithaca epidemic came at a time when engineers knew how to prevent typhoid outbreaks but physicians could not yet cure the disease. Both professions were helpless when it came to stopping a corporate executive who placed profit over the public health. Government was a concerned but helpless bystander. In this emotionally gripping book, David DeKok, a former award-winning investigative reporter and the author of widely praised books on the mine fire that devastated Centralia, Pennsylvania, brings this tragedy home by taking us into the lives of many of those most deeply affected.For modern-day readers acutely aware of the risk of a devastating global pandemic and of the dangers of unrestrained corporate power, The Epidemic provides a riveting look back at a heretofore little-known, frightening episode in America's past that seems all too familiar.Written in the tradition of The Devil in the White City, it is an utterly compelling, thoroughly researched work of narrative history with an edge.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

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.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780762760084
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/1/2011
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,003,095
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

David DeKok is a former investigative reporter for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he specialized in coverage of the utility industry for the past dozen years. He won first place reporting awards from The National Press Club, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, and Associated Press Managing Editors of Pennsylvania. His first book, Unseen Danger: A Tragedy of People, Government, and the Centralia Mine Fire, was published by University of Pennsylvania Press in 1986 and was reissued by Globe Pequot Press as Fire Underground. Unseen Danger was reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review of Jan. 4, 1987, and was the subject of a national story by Associated Press. DeKok appeared on Fresh Air and The Diane Rehm Show to promote his first book. In 2007, he explained the Centralia mine fire in the documentary film, The Town That Was, which screened in competition at the Los Angeles and Philadelphia film festival. In 2009, he appeared at length in Episode 6 of The History Channel’s Life After People series discussing Centralia, Pennsylvania.

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Table of Contents

Prelude: June 16, 1903 ix

Chapter 1 Ithaca and Its Kings 1

Chapter 2 The Boys Club 11

Chapter 3 Conflict of Interest 21

Chapter 4 Newsmen 34

Chapter 5 The Dam 45

Chapter 6 Lives of the Students 59

Chapter 7 The Valley of Death 70

Chapter 8 Typhoid, and How the Epidemic Began 82

Chapter 9 Denial 92

Chapter 10 Apocalypse 111

Chapter 11 The Fixer 121

Chapter 12 Going Home 142

Chapter 13 The Man Who Saved Ithaca 155

Chapter 14 The Man Who Saved Cornell University 173

Chapter 15 Retribution 182

Epilogue: Getting Away with Murder 196

Afterword: The Conquest of Typhoid 212

Acknowledgments 216

Endnotes 220

Bibliography 266

Index 275

About the Author 299

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 29, 2011

    Corporate Greed Was Not Invented by BP Oil

    The Epidemic opens with a juxtaposition of the survivors and the final victim of the Ithaca, NY typhoid epidemic. The cause of the epidemic was no doubt a crime of negligence that could be laid at the feet of many, but, in keeping with the culture of laissez faire justice, was ultimately placed upon the victims.

    Although DeKok's book is filled with characters easily recognizable from history, both at the time of the incident and through their subsequent roles in industry and government, it is not a story about these historic icons. The Epidemic is a story about the many people who became victims of the greed, incompetence, and dishonesty of an irresponsible businessman, and a group of people intent upon protecting the reputations and the privilege of their own kind.

    As the story unfolds, DeKok points out numerous missed opportunities that could have prevented or curtailed the loss of life through simple measures. As the epidemic took hold in the Ithaca and Cornell communities, it was met with inadequate half-way measures which seemed more designed to obviate blame than to effectively counter the spread of disease.

    In a sub-plot to the actions of the water company, the university, and the city government, DeKok draws on his career as an investigative reporter to assess the role of the press in reporting the epidemic. We see a tale of two papers, The Ithaca Daily News and The Ithaca Daily Journal. The publisher of the Daily News, Duncan Campbell Lee, demonstrated the courage to risk his fortune and career to report the story of the typhoid epidemic honestly and openly. The Daily Journal by contrast, despite occasional forays into the truth, seemed content to support the self-serving myths of the water company and the university administration.

    We can learn a lot by reading The Epidemic. Not just about the past, but about dangers that continue to threaten us today. Although we would like to think that the mistakes in Ithaca can't be repeated with improved government regulation and the protection of a modern judiciary, just stop and look around. Whether it is irresponsible oil and gas drilling, inadequate mine safety, or first responders breathing the "safe" air at Ground Zero, we cannot count on government regulation to ensure our safety. Money still talks, and it is only in retrospect that we can see the human cost. A free press and an informed public are still our best defense against corporate greed and irresponsible behavior.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2012

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