Death becomes him
Alumni author taps into murky history of drinking water
Classes represented in this story: ’91
Though never explicitly referenced, the parallels between Robert D. Morris, MD ’91, PhD, MS ’88, and the Victorian-era protagonist of his 2007 book, The Blue Death, reveal kindred spirits. Since both are physicians devoted to the safety of drinking water, they have an obvious link, but they also share the tribulation of bearing a message that many seem unwilling to hear.
The more people read Dr. Morris’s book, however, the more minds may change about the current quality of drinking water and the microscopic pathogens that threaten its consumers. In fact, The Blue Death utilizes creative nonfiction infused with historical narrative and buttressed by research to make a somewhat scientific and serious subject palatable to a broad readership. An epidemiologist who, for more than a decade, saw numerous research studies raise serious concerns about the safety of the world’s water supply only to watch the discussion stall before reaching the public, Dr. Morris was determined to widen the audience.
“Everybody who drinks water should understand the story behind it, but I knew getting people to read a book about dirty water and diarrhea was going to be a challenge,” he said. “To do that, I felt the book had to be a compelling read. As it turns out, the story of drinking water is packed with tales of genius, tragedy and political intrigue.”
Dr. Morris uses his book to profile key figures who fought convention to unravel the medical mysteries behind waterborne illnesses over the past 200 years. The first third of the book follows the work of physician John Snow who worked throughout his life to prove that cholera was caused by an unseen organism spread through contaminated water, even though the medical establishment of 19th Century England dismissed his theories. Dr. Snow was an obscure character in history, despite his influence on modern understanding of infectious diseases, and recreating him was the author’s greatest challenge.
“The most remarkable and enigmatic figure in the history of drinking water is epidemiologist John Snow,” said Dr. Morris, himself an international authority on drinking water. “He never married, had no children, died young and was not sufficiently famous at the time of his death for his personal letters and effects to be saved. I went to great lengths to track down records from the people around Snow in an effort to bring him to life.”
Though he chronicles the process of bringing filtered and disinfected water to American taps and the engineering projects behind those efforts, Dr. Morris returns often to the recurring conflict between epidemiologists and government and industry representatives who are skeptical of the evidence and reluctant to make costly changes to drinking water regulations. Like Dr. Snow in the 1800s, Dr. Morris found there were many people willing to trivialize his research when he published a report on the relationship between drinking water chlorination and cancer. He was a student at the Medical College of Wisconsin at the time, doing a two-month research rotation at the Harvard University School of Public Health. Dr. Morris has since held teaching positions at Harvard, Tufts University School of Medicine, and the Medical College of Wisconsin. He has also served as an advisor to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health.
History repeats itself throughout The Blue Death as the fragility of drinking water safeguards is demonstrated through modern times. These lessons include the cryptosporidium outbreak that sickened 400,000 people in Milwaukee, which many Medical College alumni from the 1990s likely remember.
Dr. Morris advocates for and outlines specific changes in the drinking water system here and abroad that he believes will help avert the public health disasters that riddle the past. He said reaction to the book has been extremely positive.
“Perhaps most gratifying has been the response from the medical and public health communities,” he said. “The book has been adopted as required reading in environmental health courses at schools from Montana to Boston. Even researchers immersed in the science of drinking water and epidemiology tell me the book is filled with new and fascinating stories. Interestingly, I have heard almost nothing from the government and public works leadership in the United States despite the fact that I wrote the book to help highlight the challenges they face in improving infrastructure.”
Living in Seattle, Dr. Morris is currently working on his next book, a novel.
Oral history book includes musings of several Medical College of Wisconsin alumni
Several Medical College alumni are featured or mentioned in a book by veteran medical journalist Stephen J. Busalacchi. White Coat Wisdom is an oral history in which nearly 40 physicians share their experiences in medicine.
Among the doctors featured are alumni Anderson Bauer, MD ’07, who discusses his medical school experience and his goals as a physician; LuAnn Moraski, DO, GME ’99, who discusses lessons learned from her medical training; Robert Jaeger, MD, GME ’76, who shares his thoughts on delivering babies for a living; George Schneider, MD ’70, who discusses the free clinic he operates in the Milwaukee area and his prognosis for the U.S. health care system.
Additionally, Marvin Wagner, MD ’44, MS ’51, is mentioned prominently in one of the chapters.