Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of Deadliest Cook in America
By Susan Campbell Bartoletti
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, New York, $17.99)
Today, we remember Mary Mallon as “Typhoid Mary,” a healthy carrier of typhoid who transmitted the disease to others without showing symptoms herself. As a result, the New York City Board of Health compelled her to spend much of her life in quarantine. Mallon herself got lost under the moniker. An industrious Irish immigrant, Mallon had worked her way up the domestic servant ladder to become a sought-after cook for affluent households. She was also a fiercely private woman, a loyal friend, and a quick learner who later worked in health care.
In Terrible Typhoid Mary, Susan Campbell Bartoletti separates Mary Mallon from the urban legends that surrounded her during and after her lifetime. Although little information exists about Mallon’s early life, Bartoletti explores why so many Irish people emigrated to American in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century – and describes the hardships she faced as a domestic servant. Bartoletti intertwines Mallon’s story with other narratives, including that of George Soper, the sanitary engineer who first linked Mallon to a typhoid outbreak. In addition, she places Mallon’s plight in its historical context, educating readers about early twentieth-century advances in medicine and microbiology. Along the way, Bartoletti raises questions about the often dehumanizing treatment Mallon received from the Board of Health and the media. She asks readers to consider whether the Board violated Mallon’s civil rights and offers possible explanations for Mallon’s fervent distrust of the medical profession.
In Terrible Typhoid Mary, Bartoletti deftly mingles biography, science, and history. The result is an often gripping, always engaging look at a chapter in epidemiological history and a woman who was dismayed to find herself at the center of it.
-Dorothy A. Dahm