Typhoid detectives

One house may have killed three famous men; all three deaths were preventable. These deaths are directly related to the lack of clean indoor plumbing. Knowledge of plumbing systems and water quality helped crack these cases. Modern plumbing helps prevent tragedies like these from continuing to happen.  

The three men in question were all presidents of the United States of America, and the house in question is the White House, or the President’s House, as it was called in those days. The deaths occurred before modern plumbing made it to Washington D.C. and are now, at least partially, attributed to poor water quality.   

On March 4, 1841, President William Henry Harrison delivered his inaugural address. The speech was over 8,000 words and longer than two hours. It still is the longest inaugural speech in U.S. history. For reference, President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address was under 300 words.  

Lillian Cunningham of the Washington Post wrote an article about President William Harrison’s short term in office. President Harrison gave his inaugural speech outside without a jacket. Unfortunately for former President Harrison, an accurate synopsis of his presidency is that he gave a really long speech outside without warm clothing and died of pneumonia a month later. A cautionary tale of jacket wearing was reaffirmed for worried parents around the world. The case was considered closed.  

President Harrison died in 1841. Why is the cause of death in question this many years later? Dr. Thomas Miller, President Harrison’s physician, didn’t give him the same medicine you would receive today if you had the symptoms he experienced. President Harrison was given mercury, laudanum, laxatives and multiple topical mustard rub compounds on his belly. This was the contemporary cure for a bad stomach ache in the 1840s.  

While the treatments given didn’t solve former President Harrison’s medical issues, Dr. Miller did take great notes of the symptoms. I’ll say “too detailed” as far as the descriptions of bowel movements for a non-physician, magazine columnist like me. However a recent analysis of these notes gave researchers Jane McHugh and Philip A. Mackowiak a different take on Harrison’s cause of death.  

McHugh and Mackowaik published a paper in the Oxford Journal in 2014 purporting that enteric fever and poor water quality were likely the culprits, not pneumonia. They also claim that Presidents James Knox Polk and Zachary Taylor had fatal illnesses that may have been caused by, but at a minimum would have been made worse by, contaminated water from the White House.  

How do these researchers know what the water quality was like in 1841? First of all, indoor plumbing did not exist at this time in Washington D.C. The Oxford Paper also researched where the area’s “night soil” (material from chamber pots) was taken at that time. According to historical topographic maps, the White House is at an elevation of roughly 55 feet, and its water was supplied by a nearby spring at an elevation of 60 feet. Seven blocks away at an elevation of 80 feet was the field where they hauled and deposited the night soil. It is historically accurate that Typhoid Fever-causing, unsanitary water flows downhill.  

It wasn’t until years later that scientists even knew what was giving people Typhoid Fever. According to a news-medical.net article, “Karl Joseph Eberth was the first to describe the bacillus that was suspected to cause typhoid in 1880. Four years later, Georg Gaffky was a pathologist that confirmed this link, naming the bacillus Eberthella typhi, which is known today as Salmonella enterica.”   

In 1900, comprehensive sewer systems were just starting to hit major U.S. cities. Typhoid Fever was still an issue, but people now knew what it was and that water supplies or contaminated food could make you sick. Cooking food was the primary remedy.  

Improved plumbing doesn’t solve everything, however. Mary Mallon, better known as ‘Typhoid Mary,’ is now notorious for infecting 51 and killing three people in the early 1900s. Contemporary technology allowed accurate testing of contaminated wells, and experts had enough knowledge of water supplies to isolate bad sources. In Typhoid Mary’s case, she was eventually tracked down by a sanitary engineer named George Soper. In the homes where people were getting sick, the variable of the water supply was ruled out as a cause each time.  

Soper’s negative readings in the plumbing systems led him next to unsanitary food preparation. After some time they connected the dots and found that the families all had been served meals by personal chef  Mallon. She ended up being the first known person in America who was spreading typhoid fever but not experiencing the symptoms herself.  

 Mallon never believed that she was carrying the disease. After being told by medical professionals that she could no longer cook for people, she tried a couple of other professions, which did not generate enough income or satisfaction. She began using pseudonyms to continue getting work as a personal chef. 

A Mallon signature dish was a peach ice cream, which would not have been cooked to kill the typhoid causing bacteria. Eventually, she was caught again and put into forced isolation for over 20 years to protect the general public from her cooking.

We know what causes Salmonella outbreaks because of the medical research. We don’t get sick more often because of modern plumbing. There aren’t enough drugs on the market to treat the amount of diseases caused by contaminated water supplies. Thus, the readers of this magazine are preventative care facilitators.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 35 percent of the world’s population don’t have access to improved sanitation (modern plumbing) today. 780 million don’t have access to improved (clean) drinking water. While the USA only rarely has an outbreak of contaminated water, huge parts of the world don’t have that luxury.  
Modern plumbing has been a helpful tool to prevent and identify illnesses. It is a prerequisite for building healthy communities around the world. Antibiotics aren’t enough if your well is under the night soil.

Max Rohr is a graduate of the University of Utah. He is the REHAU Construction Academy Manager in Leesburg, Virginia. He has worked in the hydronics and solar industry for 16 years in the installation, sales and marketing sectors. Rohr is a LEED Green Associate and the Radiant Professional Alliance (RPA) Education Committee chairman. He can be reached by email at max.rohr@mac.com and on Twitter at @maxjrohr.

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