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Letter From The Editor: History

At one point during my seven semesters at South Dakota State University, also known as the Harvard of the Prairie, one of the history professors tried to talk me into going for a third major.

“Why settle for only writing the first draft of history?” he said.

I passed because it would have meant adding another semester to my time on campus, which was usually as warm as a Siberian gulag.

So it is without the proper training that I’ve been working on several year-end stories, such as the top 10 most important food-safety stories for 2011.   

To get these done, I’ve been re-reading everything we’ve published in 2011.   The impression I’m left with is that our “first draft” of history is pretty damn good.

Mary, Helena, Gretchen, James, Ross, Andy, Cookson, and our many contributors do such great work on a routine basis that we all begin to just accept it as the norm.

In addition to looking back at 2011, I’ve got my head in history projects involving deadly foodborne illness outbreaks before World War II.

Four early 20th century outbreaks are among the top 10 on our most deadly list.   Those occurred in: 1911 (Boston, raw milk, 48 deaths); 1919 (California, canned olives, 15 deaths); 1922 (Portland, Oregon raw milk, 22 deaths); and 1924-25 (New York, oysters, 150 deaths).

We were lucky with the Portland outbreak. The city’s health officer employed two medical school professors to handle the crisis and they wrote an article for the AMA Journal that in some ways was better than today’s CDC reports. 

So you can already read more about when raw milk was killing in Oregon.  We will do more on the other three historic outbreaks as soon as we collect enough source material.

Anyone who knows anything about these historic outbreaks should drop me an email.

When we are finished with these, I’d like to move into the 19th century looking for deadly foodborne illness outbreaks. I’d appreciate hearing from anyone with ideas or information about those as well.

Recalling my old history professor, who used that quote about journalism being the first draft of history, reminded me that I’d never really thought about who said it first. That was apparently Alan Barth, a Washington Post editorial writer, in 1943. But Philip Graham, publisher of the Washington Post and native of South Dakota, popularized it in 1963.

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