Book Review: Terrible Typhoid Mary

Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America
Published By: HMH Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: August 4, 2015
Page Count: 240
Source: ARC Kindly Provided by Publisher via Edelweiss
Audience: Middle Grades/Young Adult - Nonfiction

Medical history is fascinating. It gets my history nerd heart pumping. I love learning more about medical practices of the past and the impacts of medicine on society. I have heard the phrase "Typhoid Mary" many times throughout my life, but I never took the time to pause and consider who this Mary was and what happened to her. I have read Bartoletti's work in the past and highly recommend Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow and Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine. I knew this story would be meticulously researched and well written. Bartoletti is one of my favorite nonfiction writers for adolescents.

It was immediately apparent to me that health care in Mary's age is far more primitive than what we have today. There was a great amount of speculation about the spread of typhoid, but the notion of a healthy carrier was something that many doctors of that time period had no knowledge of and were not looking for as a solution. I was intrigued by the idea of healthy carriers. It made me wonder what other diseases could be lurking within seemingly healthy people ready to pounce on unsuspecting victims who come into contact with the carrier. I can't imagine how terrifying it must have been to live during the typhoid epidemic. It was such an unpleasant disease.

I was also struck about the unfair treatment of Mary as I read this one. She is one of numerous healthy carriers identified, but she is the only one who is quarantined for a lengthy amount of time. In fact, Mary will live a large portion of her adult life on North Brother Island, a lonely stretch of land near New York City. The location of the island made escape impossible and forced Mary to live her days in exile from the rest of the world. The treatment she received at the hands of the New York Health System was tragic. I wonder if this treatment stemmed from the fact that she was a woman or if it had more to do with the fact that she was an Irish immigrant working  as a servant. 

My only complaint about this one was the length. I wanted more details - particularly about Brother Island.

If you're interested in medical history or learning more about the story behind the Typhoid Mary myth, this is a must read. It's a short and fascinating glimpse into the story of a disease, a cook with deadly bacteria in her system, and a medical system that is trying to protect the larger good while forsaking the civil rights of one.

One Last Gripe: I wanted to know even more about Mary, but as Bartoletti points out in the text, Mary was a private person who didn't talk or write about her situation often. As one of my history professors once said we cannot write history without sources.

My Favorite Thing About This Book: I loved the ethical and gender issues posed in this one.

First Sentence: In Oyster Bay, Long Island, Mrs. Charles Elliott Warren had fired her cook.

Favorite Character: Dr. Joe - I admired her tenacity and drive in a male dominated profession.

Least Favorite Character: Dr. Soper - I know his intellect was in the right place, but I felt like his treatment of Mary was unjust and unprofessional.

What happens when a person's reputation has been forever damaged? With archival photographs and text among other primary sources, this riveting biography of Mary Mallon by the Sibert medalist and Newbery Honor winner Susan Bartoletti looks beyond the tabloid scandal of Mary's controversial life. How she was treated by medical and legal officials reveals a lesser-known story of human and constitutional rights, entangled with the science of pathology and enduring questions about who Mary Mallon really was. How did her name become synonymous with deadly disease? And who is really responsible for the lasting legacy of Typhoid Mary? This thorough exploration includes an author's note, timeline, annotated source notes, and bibliography.