A Civil Action Woburn: Summer 1966
by Jonathan Harr

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Woburn: Summer 1966

In 1966, Reverend Bruce Young takes his first job at the Trinity Episcopal Church in Woburn. The church is quite old and has fewer than fifty parishioners, but Young and his wife consider the position a great stepping stone. Young uses his time to build up the parish, but his focus shifts in 1972 when a local family, the Andersons, learn that their son, Jimmy, has acute lymphocytic leukemia. What starts off as a cold quickly escalates to multiple trips to Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) to see Dr. John Truman. After a month of treatment, Jimmy is in remission.

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When Jimmy is released, the Pine Street neighborhood where the Andersons reside comes together to offer food and emotional support. During this time, a neighbor mentions two other boys in the area who are also ill from leukemia. The neighbor tells Anne, Jimmy’s mother, to reach out to the other families for support.

Anne reaches out to Joan Zona. Her son, Michael, was diagnosed ten months before Jimmy and isn’t doing well.  The more the women talk, the more they begin to wonder what would cause three boys in the same neighborhood to get the same life-threatening disease.

Michael shifts in and out of remission, but Jimmy is doing well, responding exactly as Dr. Truman projected. On one trip to MGH, Anne brings up the multiple leukemia cases and wonders if they are connected, but Dr. Truman “dismiss[es] her suggestion.”

As more boys in Woburn are diagnosed with leukemia, Pine Street resident Carol Gray believes this is no coincidence and relays the information to Anne. Anne becomes curious and begins taking notes about the kids in her neighborhood. She realizes that “the water and the air were the two things [they] all shared.”

The water in the neighborhood is unclean, and everyone knows it. From the taste, the color, and the way it corrodes pipes, people have to mix it with sweeteners or buy it elsewhere. After some discussion, Carol and Anne realize the quality of the water has decreased since Carol moved to Woburn in 1961. In 1964, Well G was introduced to the city water system, pumping water to the families in question. With an increasing need for water in the area, Well H was opened, with G and H mainly serving the northeast side of the city. The Andersons arrived in 1965.

It is 1967. The Mass Department of Health contemplates shutting down the two wells for good, but after some protest, chlorination becomes the solution. Townsfolk call and complain about the poor water quality, and the wells are shut down. But eventually, the need for water overrides safety concerns.

As time goes on, things change in the Anderson household. Jimmy doesn’t want to go to school, spending most days attached to Anne. Their unhealthy bond causes the relationship between Anne and her husband, Charles, to suffer. Charles doesn’t believe Anne’s claims about the water and disagrees with Anne’s parenting choices. Even Reverend Young, who accompanies the family on hospital trips, tries to help Anne “see reason.” Everywhere Anne turns, someone attempts to dispel her growing obsession with the water, including Dr. Truman.

A year later, another case of leukemia—a child named Robbie—is brought forward by another Woburn family. This time, it takes months before a diagnosis is made, which delays force Robbie to undergo hip surgeries. Reverend Young visits the medical center to speak with Donna, Robbie’s mother, and as they speak Young’s tone changes. Young asks if the doctors explained how Robbie contracted leukemia and if she suspects it could be caused by the water. These questions make Donna think.

Donna’s situation becomes worse once she learns that Robbie’s hip surgery was done incorrectly, causing lifelong paralysis in one of his nerves. She is encouraged to sue for malpractice and finds a lawyer who is willing to take her case. Thankfully, Robbie’s leukemia goes into remission, and even though he has a limp, he is living a full life, making friends everywhere...

(The entire section is 1,071 words.)