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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary. Written by Gail Jarrow. Calkins Creek, Boyds Mills, Publishers Group Canada. 2015. $21.99 ages 12 and up

Early on a damp March morning in 1907,  Mary Mallon answered the knock at the servants’ entrance of a New York brownstone house. She took one look at the visitors and lunged at them with her sharp fork. As they flinched, she ran toward the kitchen.

Mary knew why they were there."

So opens this intriguing and carefully researched book about typhoid fever and the havoc it wreaked in the early twentieth century. Many thousands of people died before the medical community was able to find a way to stop its spread.

In the case of Mary Mallon, it proved extremely difficult. Mary herself seemed perfectly healthy to all who knew her. Through careful tracking of her work history authorities thought they could safely assume she was a healthy carrier.

There is much to digest here as the author alternates between describing the fever itself (how it was diagnosed, how it spread and how it was finally treated with great success) and the story of Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary. We come to know and appreciate those who worked so tirelessly to understand and deal with the disease itself. George Soper and Dr. Josephine Baker were the two most prominent researchers and were responsible for being able to track Mary as a source of spreading typhoid, trying to prove their theory and protecting the public from her.

The chapters concerning Mary provide a clear picture of a woman who refused to accept that she could make people sick when she was not exhibiting any symptoms. She was unwilling to submit to medical testing and ended up being quarantined to contain its spread to the healthy families for whom she worked. How difficult it must have been for Mary to understand and accept that a healthy woman could be the cause of such death and suffering. It is a book that will encourage careful consideration and discussion about public health issues, human rights, and medical history.

The design is very appealing. Included are archival photographs, posters, misleading cartoons of the time, and a variety of information contained in sidebars. A list of famous typhoid victims, glossary, timeline, further resources, a thoughtful and informative author's note, generous source notes, bibliography, and index are appended and offer its intended readers a look at the careful and detailed work that is done to provide an exemplary work of nonfiction.


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