Something in the Water

Football players don’t eat raw clams, thought Dr. Leonard Morse ’51. An epidemiologist with Worcester’s Public Health Office, he’d been called to examine three College of the Holy Cross football players who were complaining of “rubber legs.” At first glance, though, Morse saw a more alarming symptom in the players’ jaundiced sclera.

When Harvard shut out Holy Cross 13-0 in the season opener, it was cause for confusion if not concern. When what was thought to be a flu outbreak ascended the depth chart and players started getting sick on the field during the Dartmouth game the following weekend, it became dire.

Mark Doherty—who played both sides of the ball as the team’s stand-in quarterback against Dartmouth—remembers watching fellow linebacker Fran Kitteredge faint at the line of scrimmage. “It really hit me then,” he told Holy Cross Magazine in 2004.

Morse suggested every player take a blood test. Ninety of ninety-seven had high levels of bilirubin. Based on clinical impression and epidemiological circumstances, the players were diagnosed with hepatitis A.

“At that time”—1969—“you got hepatitis from eating raw clams,” Morse says during a phone conversation half a century later.

Morse, pictured right, led an investigative team of doctors in a search for the cause of the 1969 hepatitis outbreak afflicting the Holy Cross football team. Ultimately, Morse’s team identified the source: contamination from an irrigation pit into the water supply of a faucet used by the team during practices. // Photo credit: College of the Holy Cros
Morse, pictured in the Worcester Public Health laboratory, served the City of Worcester’s Public Health department for nearly five decades. Photo credit: Worcester T&G / ROBERT W. LILYESTROM / Dec. 12, 1973

ON MONDAY, OCTOBER 6, 1969, the team met in the campus fieldhouse to learn that the rest of their season was cancelled. Theirs was, according to Morse, the first Division I football program in NCAA history to cancel its entire season. (The second came a year later, when seventy-five Marshall University coaches, players, fans, and personnel died in a plane crash near Huntington, West Virginia, ending the Thundering Herd’s 1970 season.)

The infected football players quarantined together in one dorm building. A photo widely circulated in the national media coverage of the outbreak shows seven players hanging a sheet reading, “It’s better to have played and lost than never to have played at all!” out of a Hanselman Hall window.

MEANWHILE, AN INVESTIGATIVE TEAM of doctors, headed by Morse, spent the next year tracing the source of the virus.

“I can still see them,” he says, referring to six underground faucets, fed by a municipal water supply line, used to irrigate the practice field. At the end of that line was another faucet whence the team got its drinking water.

Morse and company discovered that four kids infected with hepatitis and living in what The New York Times then described as “a condemned dwelling immediately adjacent to the football field” had, during a heat wave that August, bathed in pooled water from the faucets.

When the Worcester Fire Department tapped nearby hydrants to fight a two-alarmer in the neighborhood, the negative pressure in the line connected to the practice field faucets siphoned the viral water back into the municipal supply. Just hours later on August 29, 1969—an eighty-one degree Friday and the team’s second day of practice—nearly every player drank from the faucet at the end of that line.

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The most important thing we learned,” Morse told the Times in 1972, “is that faucets should not be put underground because they can lead to contamination and disease outbreaks. The problem was solved by putting the faucets on posts above the ground. … When the faucet is above ground, only air can get back in the system.

To confirm their hypothesis, Morse and his colleagues opened two hydrants to recreate the negative pressure and used dye to show that surface water on the field could then be reabsorbed into the drinking line.

In addition to his work in public health, Morse, pictured in one of his examining rooms, worked as an internist affiliated with both Saint Vincent Hospital and UMass Memorial Medical Center. Photo credit: Worcester T&G / BETTY JENEWIN / Aug. 27, 1992

Morse and five other epidemiologists subsequently published their findings in an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study led to sweeping change in public health law, Morse says.

1951: Morse, during his undergraduate years at AIC, was an active member of many co-curricular groups, including Alpha Chi, Phi Sigma Phi, Student Government, and both Biology and German Clubs.

Holy Cross awarded Morse one of the excavated faucets, which he—now ninety-one and retired—displays on a bookshelf in his home.

THE PRESENT PANDEMIC having, at the time of this writing, pushed the start of the fall sports season into spring for nearly every NCAA conference, including the NE10, it’s tempting to view Holy Cross’s lost season as microcosmic. But Morse reminds that the differences in scale and scope make the outbreaks incomparable to each other. He finds it “hard to fathom the overwhelming lethality” of COVID-19, calling it “an enormous spread of a virus.”

In 2011, when Morse was keynote speaker for AIC’s annual Desmond Tutu Lecture Series, this publication quoted him as stressing, “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable,” which he says also applies to this coronavirus.

“If it’s predictable, it’s preventable,” he repeats. “That certainly would make a wonderful lapel pin.”