In the beginning of the 20th century, the threat of a national epidemic was very real. Though great strides were made during the previous fifty years in the field of epidemiology, people still lived in fear of contagious diseases. That fear was well-justified. During the Civil War period, more deaths were caused by disease than battle wounds. Typhoid and dysentery together claimed over 280,000 lives during that conflict. It was also believed that over 35,000 deaths were attributed nationwide to typhoid in 1900 alone. Many diseases spread rapidly due to sub-standard sanitary conditions and a lack of understanding as to how they were transmitted. Typhoid was especially feared because it seemed to be everywhere and outbreaks of the sickness seemed common.
In 1903, an epidemic of typhoid struck the city of Ithaca, New York. In its initial stages, the sickness was misdiagnosed as a type of flu. Within a few weeks, hundreds were infected. Only then was the correct diagnosis made. Within four months, the Health Department counted 1,350 of the city's 13,000 residents sick with typhoid, and 85 eventually died. To place these numbers in perspective, if a similar outbreak occurred in New York City today, over 800,000 people would be afflicted. "To date 19 Cornell students have died from typhoid," reported the New York Times, "of whom 18 were male students. This makes almost 1 per cent of the male students of Cornell who have died of the fever within three weeks" (March 3, 1903). In a state of panic and unable to understand how the epidemic progressed, the City Council of Ithaca hired Dr. George A. Soper, a sanitary expert, who had studied typhoid and how it was transmitted in humans.
Soper immediately tested the city's water supply and discovered a large portion of the system was infected with typhoid bacillus. Further investigation revealed that an antiquated sewage system allowed cesspools to drain directly into clean creeks and streams. In other words, human waste was leaking into the water supply. Soper took steps to correct the problem by upgrading the sewage system and sealing up the infected areas. These measures stopped the disease in its tracks, and undoubtedly many deaths were averted. But it was still not clear how the epidemic got started in the first place.
Did it just naturally develop in the contaminated wells? Did someone intentionally bring the typhoid germ to Ithaca? Even Soper himself could not answer those questions.