The Epidemic

The trust inherent in a community’s relationship with its water utility is profound and often unquestioned. That is, until a rash of illness opens the floodgate to doubt. In The Epidemic: A Collision of Power, Privilege, and Public Health, author David DeKok reconstructs a deadly typhoid epidemic in Ithaca, New York, in 1903. In Canada, the cases of Walkerton, Ontario, North Battleford, Saskatchewan, and the 116 First Nations communities currently on boil water orders are reminders that lessons all too often need to be relearned.

DeKok, a former investigative reporter, transports the reader to what was, in 1902, the idyllic setting of Ithaca, home to Cornell University. Thoroughly researched, DeKok provides in-depth descriptions of the personalities involved, from the ambitious entrepreneur and the chief medical officer, to the first student to succumb, his body transported home by his father, and a local bar owner who lost his daughter to the epidemic and subsequently died by suicide. DeKok is unflinching in his assessment of the situation, arguing that it was “less an epidemic, which suggests chance, than a crime, a completely preventable catastrophe brought on by the grandiosity, greed and stupidity of men.”

In careful detail, DeKok retraces the series of decisions and events that he believes led to the epidemic, such as: the sale of a water company by the Cornell University Board of Directors to a businessman; the construction of a dam which was polluted by construction workers who carried typhoid; and the Chief Medial Officer’s hesitation to issue a boil water order. Ten per cent of the city’s population was infected, 83 of whom passed away. “The typhoid epidemic,” DeKok notes, “cut across all social classes, because all social classes drank water.”

Typhoid, an “agonizingly painful” disease that perforates the intestines, typically ran a course of three weeks. In 1903 there was no cure. The assault on Ithaca lasted three months. To capture the scale of grief, a local clergyman leaned on the poet Longfellow, “The air is filled with the farewells of the dying.” Church bells were silenced to allow the sufferers to rest.

DeKok portrays the Ithaca epidemic as a lesson in what occurs when a lack of regulation and transparency combine with a myopic focus on the fiscal bottom line to become the norm. “We too often worship our free enterprise system in America as a fetish, taking its supposed goodness on faith,” he writes. Readers interested in corporate and social responsibility, water safety and epidemiology will find the history of the Ithaca epidemic a source of insight. As well, students of journalism will find DeKok’s analysis of the contrasting coverage by the city’s two competing local newspapers a useful case study.

Of historical note, the water company implicated in the Ithaca epidemic is a predecessor of the General Public Utilities Corporation of Three Mile Island infamy. In a subsequent book, DeKok intends to apply his skill for thorough investigative research to the more recent Three Mile Island event. Given his success in The Epidemic, this book, too, promises to be a revealing read.

(The Epidemic is published by Guildford, Connecticut: Lyons Press, 2010, 297 pages.)

Stephanie Sodero volunteers for the Ecology Action Centre, a sparkling Nova Scotian environmental non-profit organization, and drinks Halifax tap water.

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