Book review: Terrible Typhoid Mary, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America. Houghton. 2015. $17.99. 229p. 978-0-544-31367-5. Ages 10-13. P8Q8

Bartoletti Terrible Typhoid MaryThe story of a woman who stayed healthy but killed others with the typhoid fever bacteria carried within her body has long fascinated people. Mary Mallon was not the only person who passed along diseases, but she has become the most famous—still known after a century. Thoroughly researched to go beyond the tabloid scandal, the book begins in 1906 when a sanitation engineer was hired to find the reason for an epidemic of the disease in a family vacationing on Long Island. Thought to be a carrier, Mary Mallon, the family’s cook, was arrested and then imprisoned and/or quarantined for part of her life to keep her from following the only job she could find to adequately support herself. The biography reads much like a novel with some humor and great compassion for the subject. It also talks about the problems of women supporting themselves during the early part of the 20th century, the ignorance of health issues at that time, information about society and culture during Mallon’s lifetime, and background about the danger of typhoid fever which could easily kill thousands of people. A 15-page “Photo Album” provides posters and the reproduction of a letter in addition to photographs, and a detailed timeline is also interesting and useful. The book can lead to discussions about whether the health department had the right to lock up Mallon, why it didn’t do the same to others, how people may have been prejudiced against the Irish at that time, how “yellow journalism” influenced Mallon’s treatment, and why people don’t trust science and medicine.

Summer 2015 reviews by Nel Ward.


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