Antidotes of Knowledge

A Message from the President

William L. Fox '75

As the planet grows in population, while simultaneously the global body temperature creeps upward like intermittent fever, the generation currently on campus will require a deeper knowledge of public health.

Always read the labels. I sometimes forget to take the time for a quick look or to ask about the detailed contents of the menu. And that absentmindedness was a recent near miss. A current St. Lawrence student, who shares with me a severe allergy to peanuts and nuts, intercepted my raised fork just in time, expressing enough caution and confidence to wave me off a dinner entrée I was about to tuck into. A first bite was potentially lethal. A second one increased the probability of becoming an irreversible goner. (For perspective, twice as many people die of this allergy than those struck by lightning.)

She and I are among a handful of others in our University community who are on constant guard against the selectively harmful effects caused by a particular food. Our “peanut gallery” has grown over the years and now includes a dozen other students, a few children of faculty and staff, and a North Country friend and business leader who is also a devoted alumnus.

For a long time, the ingredients of food, either served or bought, were not revealed in full. Even in the presence of legal requirements since 1906, unknown danger remains in the health and safety of what human beings may consume without appropriate awareness. This was a cause that my great-grandfather gave his long professional life to serve, but more about him in a moment.

Grand-scale public health questions are now stirring on campus as never before. Our students, through a variety of new courses, are confronting and discussing the vital issues of clean water, food security, and the mitigation of hunger. We are asking them to explore these matters in scientific, literary, economic, ethical, and rhetorical terms. 

As the planet grows in population, while simultaneously the global body temperature creeps upward like intermittent fever, the generation currently on campus will require a deeper knowledge of public health issues and their possible long-term remedies. St. Lawrence, once again, has glimpsed the future of learning in the 21st century by opening a fresh path in its liberal arts curriculum for the study of public health—from the personal circumstances of how some immune systems react in the face of commonplace mixed nuts to big data trends in the cumulative and compounding results of the industrial food complex.

Concern about food safety, for instance, is not yet a settled matter. The relatively recent progress of food distribution is an astonishing achievement, especially if one’s grocery store is in rural America—bins of avocadoes and fresh pineapples in Canton are no longer rare. And yet, meats and produce are routinely recalled and taken off the shelf because they present the risk of salmonella, E. coli bacteria, or ptomaine. Only a few years ago, there were nine deaths and 22,000 illnesses in 46 states owing to contaminated peanut butter. The history of the problem is hardly past its sell-by date.

My great-grandfather is mentioned by name in Deborah Blum’s newest book called The Poison Squad (2018) as one among a small staff of scientists and civil servants on the frontline of a protracted battle for pure food and the transparent disclosure of what is actually in it. The stakes were high, and the subsequent political corruption was immense. It is the riveting story of a small federal agency in Washington, D.C., that crusaded for major reform, which eventually led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. They won their point by a congressional act signed by President Theodore Roosevelt, but the victory, loaded with equivocation and compromise, contained loopholes that are still remnant.

Part of my family lore is embedded in this effort to achieve reliable food safety—I heard at my childhood dinner table about the cayenne pepper that was once full of brick dust; the spices that were ground with coconut shells; the copper sulfate that gave French peas their greenness; the ketchup contaminated by coal-tar dyes; and the borax that adulterated the household flour. My great-grandfather spent more than 40 years working to change the spillover effect of industrial America that sometimes extended recklessly into high-volume food production and threatened the health of the nation.

It is vitally important that public health is now part of today’s academic program, though St. Lawrence is not a newcomer to the issues that are under this moral imperative. A hundred years ago, in 1918-19, the influenza pandemic that infected about a third of the world’s population, struck the campus hard.

All of our students at the time survived their illnesses, but in the nearby paper mill town of Pyrites, according to The Hill News, the disease was “raging dangerously.” Over 50 students from campus volunteered to attend to the sick and dying, dozens of mill workers lying close together on cots in  makeshift barracks. Twelve students were chosen as “orderlies” to feed and comfort the sick. They worked around the clock within the limitations of local quarantine, antiseptic hygiene, and the shortage of blankets. There were no intervention therapies, medicines, or vaccines at the time.

The story is not mentioned in official University histories, unremembered by us all today, but it is, nevertheless, an important centennial marker to note. 

As prologue to an innovative approach to liberal arts learning, St. Lawrence students began thinking about public health long before it was brought into today’s classroom. Eventually, everyone will need the lesson of this history: to know the broader equivalent of my own private awareness, that there is a difference between saltines and salt peanuts.

Portrait of President Fox