The Death and Life of the Great Lakes

“I live just a few blocks from Lake Michigan and I’m not sure I would have move back to Wisconsin after living in Utah and Idaho after college if it the lake wasn’t here,” says Dan Egan, a senior water policy fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences. “Milwaukee wouldn’t be Milwaukee without Lake Michigan.”

“The Great Lakes are a trove of freshwater like nowhere else,” says Dan Egan, author of the New York Times bestseller The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. “They contain one-fifth of the world’s fresh water, and there are about 40 million people who live in the Great Lakes basin. The lakes matter to us for many reasons—economically, culturally and, for me, emotionally.”

Dan Egan

              Indeed, for Egan, a journalist for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel who has covered the Great Lakes for over a decade, it’s not just a job or the realization that these bodies of water are important for commerce but also because they define a region.

              “I live just a few blocks from Lake Michigan and I’m not sure I would have move back to Wisconsin after living in Utah and Idaho after college if it the lake wasn’t here,” says Egan, a senior water policy fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences. “Milwaukee wouldn’t be Milwaukee without Lake Michigan.”

              For those of us who grew up in Northwest Indiana, that same feeling prevails. Lake Michigan is part of our history and our present from the industries that lined its shores and made this area a powerhouse in manufacturing and shipping to the beauty of the dunes and beaches and all the recreational opportunities they offers, it’s all encompassing. But Egan sees the Great Lakes as being more fragile than we realize.

              “When you look out at the lake, you see this beautiful body of water but there’s so much going on that you don’t see,” he says.

              From the alewives that plagued the beaches back in the 1970s to new dangers, Egan says many of the difficulties with the Great Lakes began when they were opened up to the ocean by building the St. Lawrence Seaway, allowing large ships to bring in such invasive organisms as zebra and quagga mussels. Each year, it costs millions of dollars to remove these mussels from water intake plants.  

              “No one had ever heard of these before 2000,” he says, noting that while the shipping industry has taken steps to eliminate these unwelcome passengers, the technology is not enough to completely stop them from hitching a ride into our waters.

              In ways, it’s been one crisis after another. The Clean Water Act of 1972 helped clean up the pollution that industries and cities were dumping into the water by holding them accountable. But then came the invasive species.

              “Lake Erie, the smallest of the lakes, is probably in the worse shape,” says Egan, “because of its algae blooms and dead zones. But all the lakes are vulnerable.”

              Interestingly, Egan says that global shipping accounts for less than 5% of the traffic on the Great Lakes which he describes as being equivalent one train a day, yet they are the major cause of the problems impacting the lakes’ ecosystems.

Egan thinks it’s important for people to know the issues putting the lakes in jeopardy.

              “An informed public is an empowered public,” he says. “I hope this book gives a baseline knowledge about these glorious lakes.”


What: Dan Egan talk and book signing

When: Wednesday, January 15 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

Where: Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St., Chicago, IL 60605

Cost: Free; seating is first come, first served. Books are available for purchase and Egan will be autographing books at the end of the program.

FY: 312-747-4300;

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Susan Orlean’s newest book, The Library Book (Simon & Schuster, $28), is about a fire and a library but like all things this New York Times bestselling author writes (The Orchid Thief, Rin Tin Tin), it’s so much more. A lover of libraries since she was very young, Orlean had been toying with the idea of writing about the subject when her son, then six-years-old, announced that his class assignment was to write about a city employee and instead of the typical fireman or policeman interview, he wanted to write about a librarian.Susan Orlean_credit Noah FecksSusan Orlean_credit Noah Fecks         Then, after moving to Los Angeles, Orlean was at the Los Angeles Central Public Library when the librarian opened a book, took a sniff and announced that you could still smell the smoke. Orlean asked if that was from a time when smoking was allowed. The answer was no, instead the aroma dated back to April 29, 1986 when an inferno blazed for seven hours, reaching 2500 degrees. It took half of the Los Angeles’s firefighting resources to extinguish the blaze and by then flames and water had destroyed 400,000 books and damaged another 700,000.
“It was the combination of all of these that gave me the final push; it was as if I was being nudged, repeatedly, to look at libraries and find a narrative about them to write,” says Orlean, a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of seven books. “Learning about the fire was definitely the final nudge that made me sure this was the story I wanted to tell.”

But how to tell the story? For Orlean, who is obsessive about details and research—it took her almost as long to write the book as it did to rebuild the library—she had to figure out her focus.

“That’s exactly what the challenge was–it was a topic that was both broad and deep, with so much history and so many ways I could pursue it,” she says. “I finally decided to treat it as a browse through a library, with stops in different ‘departments’ of the story, such as the history, the fire, the present day, my own library memories. By visualizing the story that way I was able to move through the topic and engage as many aspects of it as I could.”

Her attention to details, both past and present is amazing and intriguing. We learn that Mary Foy, only 18, became the head of LAPL and also, because the fire was set by an arsonist, she delves into previous book burnings such as when in 213 B.C. Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered any history book he didn’t agree with be destroyed. The act, says Orlean, resulted in over four hundred scholars being buried alive.

In keeping with her compulsive exploration, Orlean even tried burning a book herself, just to see what happens and how it is done.

Asked to name her favorite library, Orlean mentions the Bertram Woods branch library in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

“That’s where I fell in love with libraries and became a passionate reader,” she says. “Of course, I’ll always feel a special attachment to the L.A. Public Library, because of the book, and it’s a great library to be in love with.”

Orlean also hopes people appreciate the gifts library give us.

“I want people to think about the nature of memory, both individual memory and common memory,” she says. “Our individual memories are as rich as a library, full of volumes of information and vignettes and fantasies. And our common memory is our libraries, where all the stories of our culture reside. I love reminding people of the value of both.”


What: Susan Orlean discusses her new book followed by a book signing.

When: November 13th at 6 pm

Where: Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago Public Library, 400 S. State Street, Chicago IL

Cost: Free

FYI: (312) 747-4300;


The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies

Told that his surviving newborn daughter would soon die just like her twin, William Conlin grabbed the premature child and, hailing a cab, fled. But he wasn’t going to the hospital, he was leaving it and heading to see Martin Couney who had no office but operated on the midways of carnivals and fairs such as New York’s Coney Island and Chicago’s 1933 Century of Progress.Dawn Raffel_final author photo_credit Claire Holt

A sideshow novelty along with bearded ladies and brothels (yes, many fairs had “female boarding houses” back then) attracting tens of thousands of people, Couney exhibited “weakling” babies that would typically be left to die in hospitals.  Instead he saved them through the use of a new and unusual medical device called an incubator. He was often quoted as saying “If we have a child for seven days in our charge we never lose it.”  It wasn’t a boast, it was mainly true. Couney operated his Infant Incubator Company at a time where eugenics, based upon the idea that only the strongest, healthiest, smartest and best looking should survive in order to create a perfect race.

“In literature these babies were called ‘weaklings’,” says Dawn Raffel, author of the recently released The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies, by Dawn Raffel (Blue Rider Press $27), adding that Couney’s story was almost forgotten.

Indeed, Raffel, who grew up in Milwaukee, had only learned about Couney in passing when her father mentioned going to the Century of Progress and seeing the exhibit.

“I didn’t even know there was a World’s Fair in Chicago,” was Raffel’s first take away from their conversation. But she later became intrigued and after a visit to the Coney Island Museum embarked upon four years of research.

At first information was difficult to find even though Couney had been the main go to person for premature babies for 40 years. And even then, most premature American babies didn’t survive.

“If you weren’t a place where  Couney had a show—and that was only in the summer—you were pretty much out of luck,” she says.

A positive turn in her research came about when Raffel learned about Lawrence Gartner, a highly regarded neonatologist and professor emeritus of pediatrics and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago who called himself a Couney buff. In an interesting connection to Northwest Indiana, Lawrence’s wife Carol Gartner, another Couney afficianado, retired as a professor of English and the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Purdue University Calumet.

Raffel also interviewed some of the babies, now grown up, who had been saved by Couney.  Among them was Barbara Gerber, who was 80 years old at the time she spoke to Raffel and though living in California had grown up on Chicago’s South Side. Gerber and her twin sister, Joanie, were underweight when born. Joanie, at four pounds, was placed in an incubator at the University of Chicago’s Lying-in Hospital until she gained a pound and then was sent home. Barbara, at three pounds, was considered a goner and ended up with Councey where she spent three months. Health wise, Barbara prospered while Joanie suffered lifelong issues, dying at age 48.

A showman and possibly not a doctor at all, Couney made money by exhibiting premature babies in incubators to fair goes and used all sorts of marketing tricks to increase the crowds. One barker, hired to lure people in by yelling “Don’t forget to see the babies” would change his name from Archibald Leach and move to Hollywood where he became known as Cary Grant.

But Couney’s heart was in the right place.

Over the decades, before incubators, which were invented in Europe and widely used there, became commonplace in the U.S., Raffel says he probably saved between 6,500 and 7,000 lives. He also claimed that 85 percent of the babies in his care survived, with most deaths happening with 24 to 48 hours of their arrival.

“One doctor is quoted as saying he’d never seen a hospital as clean as Dr. Couney’s place on the Midway,” says Raffel.


What: Dawn Raffel talk, book signing and reading with award winning author Stuart Dybek.

When: 6 p.m., Wednesday, September 5

Where: Seminary Co-op Bookstore, 5751 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, IL

FYI: (773) 752.4381;

What: Multimedia presentation and talk moderated by Donna Seaman

When: 6 p.m., Thursday, September 6

Where: Cindy Pritzker Auditorium, Harold Washington Public Library, 400 S. State St., Chicago, IL

FYI: (312) 747-4300;


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