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Researching a typhoid epidemic


Cornell University students moving between classes

Cornell University students moving between classes

Most of my research for The Epidemic was done in Ithaca, New York, a 460-mile round trip from my home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I fell in love with Ithaca’s hills, waterfalls, state parks, and beautiful Cayuga Lake. A determined meat eater, I even ate a meal (one) at the Moosewood Restaurant, that Ithaca temple of vegetarianism. And while most cities of that size in the early 1990s had no theater showing indie and foreign films, Ithaca had three! I remember sitting in one of them one night, waiting for the film to start, and hearing a man, obviously a Cornell professor, say to a companion, “As I told [Mikhail] Gorbachev last week…” It was that kind of place.

I had discovered the 1903 epidemic in a footnote in a document relating to Associated Gas & Electric Co. at the New York State Public Service Commission in Albany. Associated Gas & Electric had begun its history in Ithaca in 1906 as a vehicle for William T. Morris to shield his local utility companies  from the new utility regulation about to be put into place by New York Gov. Charles Evans Hughes. It remained the official headquarters of Associated Gas & Electric’s sprawling empire during the Hopson era, even though the real power center at 61 Broadway in New York City. After the bankruptcy, General Public Utilities Corp., the successor company, briefly owned the local utility serving Ithaca, New  York State Electric and Gas, but soon spun it off at the order of the SEC. A huge trove of papers of Associated Gas & Electric ended up at Cornell University’s Department of Rare and Manuscript Collections. Ed Morehouse, father of GPU’s nuclear program, originally donated them to his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, but  Wisconsin wisely passed them on to Cornell.

Cayuga Lake from McGraw Tower

Cayuga Lake from McGraw Tower

I had worked my way  through most of those many boxes by the time I discovered the typhoid epidemic.  I made a number of good friends among the archivists at Cornell, especially Phil McRay, Laura Linke, Julia Parker, Brenda Marston (less for the book than our shared interest in Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, where her mother lives), and Elaine Engst, the director. With their help, I found several collections of papers that were helpful to my research. The papers of Mynderse Van Cleef, William T. Morris’ banker, were of enormous help, as were those of Frank Gannett, the founder of Gannett Newspapers. Gannett was managing editor of the Ithaca Daily News during the typhoid epidemic. Jacob Gould Schurman, president of Cornell during the epidemic, had a huge collection that Phil McCray had processed (he also helped process Gannett’s papers)

Cornell Library

Cornell Library

Then there was a collection called the Typhoid Papers. At some point in the distant past, Cornell’s archivists had gathered together many of the documents  in their collections  related to the epidemic. These were largely untouched, because almost no one at Cornell had written seriously about the epidemic, at least at length. Nor had anyone on the outside. They were enormously important, especially the files of letters from parents seeking help from Andrew Carnegie to pay their children’s typhoid-related medical–or funeral–expenses.

My book would have been truly impossible to write without the daily journalism of the Ithaca Daily News and Ithaca  Daily Journal. The former paper, the one Gannett edited and Duncan Campbell Lee, one of the epidemic’s true heroes, published, is long gone. The Daily Journal became today’s Ithaca Journal, ironically a Gannett newspaper. These reporters, especially at the Daily News, truly wrote the first drafts of the history of the epidemic, sometimes with wives or children sick at home with typhoid. As a former newspaper reporter, I knew exactly the emotions they were experiencing, the exhilaration and the fear.

Graffiti at a Cornell University bus shelter

Graffiti at a Cornell University bus shelter

I had to become a physician of sorts to write this book, or rather, a 1903 physician. I needed to know exactly what he–or she, in Ithaca–would have done to treat typhoid in 1903. I needed to know what tests to perform to diagnose typhoid, especially the Widal Reaction, and how to carry them out. I learned about the Brand ice baths–barbaric, but they brought down the fever–and the various remedies used by Ithaca’s homeopathic physicians. There were a fair number of those, although allopaths dominated. I don’t kid myself–I couldn’t have operated to stop a rectal bleed-out–but I could have done a lot of the non-surgical treatment. Ithaca had more physicians per capita than any city in New York, including New York City, but they were overwhelmed by the immensity of the epidemic.

My father, Paul W. DeKok, told me about the birth of chloromycetin, the wonder drug that cured typhoid in 1949. He was a young chemist at Parke, Davis & Co.’s plant in Holland, Michigan, and was among those who worked to bring chloromycetin into industrial production, no easy task.

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