Book Review: Terrible Typhoid Mary by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Terrible Typhoid MaryTerrible Typhoid Mary
A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America
Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, August 2015
ISBN 978-0-544-31367-5

From the publisher—

Mary Mallon was a cook. A good cook, with a terrible temper. She worked for the wealthiest families in New York City. But all that changed when six members of the Warren household fell sick, and Mary mysteriously disappeared. The hunt for “Typhoid Mary” began. 

Mallon’s complex story illustrates that a “culture of shame” is not a new phenomenon. The methods of castigating women for seemingly offensive behavior may be different but the struggle for girls and women to recover is remarkably similar. When examined through this lens, a woman who is assumed to have played a large role in the spread of a terrible disease is shown to been a victim herself. The book also raises questions about reactions to “disaster diseases” and how they catapult communities into questionable actions. 

I’ve known about Typhoid Mary as far back as I can remember and was always intrigued by this cautionary tale but knew little of this woman’s story beyond the fact that she was an asymptomatic carrier of a deadly disease. When I was offered the opportunity to read this new biography, I jumped at the chance and I’m really glad I did.

Mary Mallon was a woman trapped by her times and its male-dominated society but also a victim of yellow journalism and the misguided intentions of scientists and doctors, led by sanitary engineer and epidemiologist Dr. George A. Soper, who valued their work far above human rights. Until now, I had no idea that this Irish immigrant cook was only the first of numerous “healthy carriers” and that, in fact, she caused the deaths of many fewer people than the old tales would have us believe. She did make a lot of people sick but she didn’t understand how and it didn’t help that Soper and others let their arrogance towards an uneducated poor woman get in the way of gaining her cooperation. If only they had treated her with respect and compassion, the second half of Mary’s life would have gone much differently.

The award-winning Ms. Bartoletti has done extensive research and it shows but, more importantly, she sheds a light on the paternalistic attitudes in existence in the first third of the 20th century and the willingness of those in power to ignore legalities and the Constitution itself even when confronted with the illogic of what they do. Written for the young adult market, Terrible Typhoid Mary also has much to offer adults as well as middle graders not only in the riveting story of one unfortunate woman but in what power run amok can do. A cautionary tale, indeed.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, August 2015.