Friday, October 30, 2015

Terrible Typhoid Mary

Susan Campbell Bartoletti's new book explores Mary Mallon's role in the typhoid frenzy at the beginning of the 20th century.  Mary's connection to the disease began when she was hired as a cook for a wealthy family on summer vacation.  Several members of the family and staff were stricken with typhoid fever, but no one knew why.

Mary's connection may never have been discovered if the owners of the house hadn't hired a man named George Soper to investigate.  It was Soper who discovered Mary was a healthy carrier of the disease.  She showed no symptoms, but her body was host for the deadly typhoid bacteria.

What followed was an epic battle of wills between Soper and Mary Mallon.  Mary's case is important because it tested the power of the New York Board of Health.  Could the government imprison people for being sick?  What about Mary who wasn't sick at all and had no skills other than cooking?

One of the best aspects of this book is the author's exploration of notoriety.  After Mary's name was reported in the press, she became a scapegoat for typhoid fever despite all the other healthy carrier's who were never imprisoned and all the people who got sick but had nothing to do with Mary Mallon. Is being sick a crime?

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