'Philadelphia: The Great Experiment' airs Wednesday on 6ABC

Posted: April 04, 2012

Editor's note: Due to a production error, this story did not appear in Tuesday's Daily News. It is being repeated in full today.


By ellen gray

Daily News Television Critic

IF FILMMAKER Ken Burns had had Sam Katz's budget, we might still be in the early innings of "Baseball."

But Katz, the former mayoral candidate, who, along with his son, Philip, has been at work for a few years on a documentary series on the history of Philadelphia, is making progress.

And thanks to his add-a-pearl approach, you don't have to wait until he's finished to see how it's coming.

Today, just about a year after "The Floodgates Open," the first installment of "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment," made its television debut on 6 ABC, the station will introduce a second chapter, "Fever: 1793."

A look at the yellow-fever epidemic that wiped out 10 percent of Philadelphia's population and in many ways helped shape the city's future, this episode is narrated, like the first, by actor Michael Boatman ("The Good Wife") and boasts the same lively production values, blending re-created scenes and art and maps of the period with documentary-style talking heads to tell a compelling story that turns out to be about much more than yellow fever. There were also fleeing politicians, feuding (and headstrong) doctors and African-American leaders who encouraged members of their community to risk their own lives to help with the sick.

And of course epidemics continue to hold our attention, even if we've learned that bleeding the sick isn't the answer.

I happened to watch the episode, which traces the beginning of Philadelphia's epidemic to those fleeing unrest in what's now Haiti, a few hours after reading Sunday's New York Times report about the cholera epidemic in that Caribbean nation that appears to ave been brought there from Nepal by U.N. peacekeepers.

The law of unintended consequences continues, but some of the things we take most for granted here, including clean drinking water, we owe in part to how Philadelphia responded in the wake of an epidemic two centuries ago.

For those who'd like to know more about this chapter of Philadelphia's history, separate webisodes on some of the key players in "Fever: 1793," including Dr. Benjamin Rush, Richard Allen and Stephen Girard, as well as other aspects of the story, are expected to be posted Thursday at historyofphilly.com. n

Contact Ellen Gray at 215-854-5950 or graye@phillynews.comor follow on Twitter @elgray.Read her blog at EllenGray.tv.

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