Isaac Russell was born in Salt Lake City on 14 December 1879 to Samuel and Henrietta Russell. With the death of his father twelve years later, young Isaac went to live with a family friend, Charles Burton, also of Salt Lake. At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in April 1898, he joined the Utah Volunteer Battalion. Reporting first to Camp Richmond near San Francisco, he was sent to Manila that summer. He spent the next two years in the Philippines, serving both as the editor of The American Soldier, a newspaper for the troops, and, later, as General John J. Pershing's secretary.
Shortly after returning to the United States in July 1900, Russell, traveling through Palo Alto, accidentally met David Starr Jordan, President of Stanford University. Learning of the youth's regret that he lacked the course credits necessary to attend Stanford, Jordan administered a special exam for him, and Russell was admitted that fall. While at the University, Russell strengthened his journalistic skills, editing the student publications, Quad, and Chaparral for each of his four years there.
Graduating with an AB in English in 1904, Russell returned to Salt Lake City, where he soon found employment as a reporter for the Deseret News. Whatever satisfaction he might have initially found in this job, it had all but entirely dissipated by the end of 1908. By then, Russell became disenchanted with his low salary, especially in light of the fact that he had gotten married the year before to Althea Farr, (ca. June-July 1907) and could now expect to have a growing family to support. (He and his wife did in fact have three children, two sons and a daughter.) Russell also became disillusioned with the "conservative" approach of the News. Like so many journalists of the time, he did not wish to confine his writing merely to straightforward reporting but, rather, sought to attack existing inequities and press for reform. Isaac Russell, in short, was a muckraker. Indeed, in the same year as the publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), Russell lauded Collier's fight against patent medicines and in the years to come wrote on several other concerns of the muckrakers: the trusts, political corruption, land fraud, and the like. These writings, of course, were submitted not to the large dailies but to magazines such as Collier's, Pearson's, and Harper's, all sympathetic to the muckrakers' aims.
Quitting the Deseret News in the spring of 1909, Russell moved to New York City, joining first the staff of the Sun, and then, a few months later, the Times. Among the major stories covered by Russell during his six-year tenure at the Times were: the sinking of the Titanic (which he was apparently the first journalist to report); the continuing aviatory efforts of the Wright brothers; and U.S. interference in Nicaragua in 1913-1914. This period also witnessed the emergence of Russell as a staunch, outspoken defender of the Mormon faith, to which he belonged. In Feb 1911 he asked Theodore Roosevelt to refute charges that as President he had negotiated secret deals with the Mormon leadership. Roosevelt's lengthy response lambasted his critic and praised the Mormons, and Russell made sure the piece was prominently published. On a less spectacular, but equally passionate level, Russell also began writing letters to editors of various newspapers in which he tried to correct their misconceptions about Mormonism, particularly in regard to polygamy.
On 1 June 1915, as a result of a supposedly inaccurate article he wrote on Amos Pinchot, Russell was fired from the Times. Shortly thereafter he joined the staff of the New York Evening Mail, becoming its city editor in 1916. During his years with the Mail, Russell continued his muckraking activities, focusing his attention in particular on conditions in the military and, above all, in the labor market. Besides writing numerous articles on U.S. Army training camps, he condemned what he perceived to be the frequent use of court-martials and the supercilious attitude of officers for the "underdog" in his criticism of low wages and poor working conditions among the country's laborers. Nor did he limit his actions to writing alone. In July 1918 he was appointed a "special field representative" for the National War Labor Board; in February 1919 he became an examiner for the Railroad Wages and Working Conditions Dept. of the U.S. Railroad Administration; and the following month he joined the American Labor Party.
In the early 1920s, Russell's professional interests came to center on two issues: Utah and food. As his correspondence with Heber Grant and George Thomas--presidents of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints and the University of Utah, respectively,--reveals, Russell believed that the leadership of both church and state was so obsessed with matters of religion and finance that it stifled independent intellectual and creative initiative. Along with this anxiety over Utah's future went a desire to commemorate her past--a desire to which Russell gave concrete expression in numerous articles and, more elaborately, in his first book, Hidden Heroes of the Rockies, published by World Book in late 1923.
Of equal, if not greater concern to Russell was the question of nutrition, about which he had been writing and lecturing at least since 1917. In 1921 he asked for--and received--the editorship of the Mail's newly-established food department; but he did not stay in that position long, for the following January, having acceded to the American Baking Institute's request that he edit its new journal, Baking Technology, he moved to Chicago, where the Institute was headquartered. In this capacity--and, indeed, in all his writings about food--Russell acted in the best muckraking tradition, berating, for example, the AMA's belittlement of nutritional science and bakers' reluctance to adopt new methods. Russell revealed his own fervently "scientific" approach to food in his second, and final book, The Romance of the Holes in the Bread (published in 1925 by the Chemical Publishing), which extols the achievements of Louis Pasteur and contains a preface by his old friend and mentor, David Starr Jordan.
Nutritional and Utahan affairs were not the only targets of Russell's often wrathful pen during these years. The electrical industry, the Wright-Curtiss patent dispute over airplanes, the move to change Mount Rainier's name to Tacoma, even the laws of the road--all received Russell's vigorous attention. In the winter of 1926-1927, he left the American Institute to edit the journal Public Relations. Only a few months after assuming this new position, however, he fell seriously ill and had to be hospitalized. But he was at home when he died, of a massive heart attack, on 7 September 1927. He was not yet forty-eight years old.From the finding aid for Isaac Russell Papers, 1898-1927 (Stanford University. Libraries. Dept. of Special Collections and University Archives.)