Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America


“Adopting one of the most  far-reaching vaccination laws in the nation, California on Tuesday barred  religious and other personal-belief exemptions for schoolchildren, a move that  could affect tens of thousands of students and sets up a potential court battle  with opponents of immunization…Public health officials said a proliferation of  waivers, many sought because of unfounded concerns about the safety of vaccines,  helped fuel a measles outbreak that started at Disneyland in December, and  quickly spread across the West, infecting 150 people.” -- from the Los Angeles Times, 30 June  2015 “Fever in the  morning Fever all through the  night” -- Eddie Cooley and Otis Blackwell  (1956) “[Sanitary engineer George A. Soper]  felt certain that he had gathered enough epidemiological evidence to prove that  Mary was spreading the killer disease. At this point, however, the evidence  that Mary Mallon caused typhoid wherever she worked was circumstantial. The fact  that she happened to work at places where typhoid fever broke out did not prove  that she caused the outbreaks. The outbreaks may have been a coincidence. The  fact that Mary escaped the illness wasn’t proof either. Nor was the fact that  she left her employment soon after typhoid broke out. But these facts--and her  behavior--convinced Soper that Mary Mallon was ‘a menace to the public health.’  The circumstantial nature of the evidence did not deter  him. ‘As a matter of fact, I did not need  the specimens [of her urine, feces, and blood] in order to prove that Mary was a  focus of typhoid germs,’ he said. ‘My epidemiological evidence had proved  that’ Soper was wrong. He did need the  specimens. As scientists and statisticians know, correlation does not imply  causation. So far, he had only established a pattern that put Mary at the scene  of the outbreaks. He needed the specimens to prove that Mary had caused the  outbreaks.” Imagine feeling perfectly healthy and  having some stranger come up to you, tell you that you are a public health  menace to society, and demand that you immediately provide him specimens of your  urine, feces, and blood. Having been hired in 1906 by the  owner of a seaside rental home to resolve the issue of a typhoid outbreak at the  dwelling, sanitary engineer George Soper, who was neither medical doctor, health  professional, nor scientist, tracked down, spied on, and confronted Mary Mallon,  who had recently been a cook at that seaside rental property. Soper insisted  that Mary provide him specimens. When he did not receive the response he  desired, Soper persuaded the New York City Board of Health to arrest and  forcibly obtain those specimens from Mary Mallon.

In TERRIBLE TYPHOID MARY, author  Susan Campbell Bartoletti takes readers on a roller coaster ride. We initially  empathize as we read how “Typhoid Mary ” was treated. Mary was a thirty-something  Irish immigrant with no family or friends to come to her rescue. She’d been  working nonstop since arriving in America as a young teenager. After George  Soper contacted them, the NYC Board of Health had a doctor and a bunch of  policemen tackle Mary, shove her in a horse-drawn ambulance, and lock her up in  a quarantine hospital. (The author shares a lively, detailed, first-hand account  of the fight to take Mary into custody.) Since she was given no due process as  guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, it is easy to view Mary’s treatment as a  governmental kidnapping. The Board of Health had no idea what to do with her, so  they just locked her up: “Mary had committed no crime, yet  here she was, kidnapped, surrounded by sick people, cut off from the outside  world, and forced to submit to medical tests. She had no idea how long the  hospital intended to hold her.” We eventually have to reexamine our  initial judgments  when increasing evidence suggests that Mary Mallon was, in fact, responsible for infecting large  numbers of people. The Board of Health determined through lab tests that Mary  was a healthy carrier of typhoid. When, after several years, she finally  obtained her freedom through a contractual agreement with the Department of  Health, she seems to have subsequently infected a lot more people before she was  once again locked away. Public health versus individual  rights: That’s what we’ve been debating here in California as this new  immunization law was working its way through the system. In telling the story of  Susan Campbell Bartoletti has done a great job of framing TERRIBLE TYPHOID MARY  within a similar public policy versus individual rights debate. It provides  readers a great American history tale and leaves them with plenty to think  about.

240 pages   978-0-544-31367-5  Ages 12-15

Recommended by:  Richie Partington,  MLIS, California USA See more of his book recommendations:  Richie's Picks  (http://richiespicks.com/)

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