Typhoid Mary / Edition 1

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Overview

She was an Irish immigrant cook. Between 1900 and 1907, she infected twenty-two New Yorkers with typhoid fever through her puddings and cakes; one of them died. Tracked down through epidemiological detective work, she was finally apprehended as she hid behind a barricade of trashcans. To protect the public's health, authorities isolated her on Manhattan's North Brother Island, where she died some thirty years later.

This book tells the remarkable story of Mary Mallon—the real Typhoid Mary. Combining social history with biography, historian Judith Leavitt re-creates early-twentieth-century New York City, a world of strict class divisions and prejudice against immigrants and women. Leavitt engages the reader with the excitement of the early days of microbiology and brings to life the conflicting perspectives of journalists, public health officials, the law, and Mary Mallon herself.

Leavitt's readable account illuminates dilemmas that continue to haunt us. To what degree are we willing to sacrifice individual liberty to protect the public's health? How far should we go in the age of AIDS, drug-resistant tuberculosis, and other diseases? For anyone who is concerned about the threats and quandaries posed by new epidemics, Typhoid Mary is a vivid reminder of the human side of disease and disease control.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Eloquent and troubling history. . . . I'm convinced by Leavitt's arguments, fascinated by the way she tells this story and urge everyone to read her book. —Janet Goldin, The Women's Review of Books

"[An] alert and thoughtful work. . . . Leavitt counsels us, through her sympathetic re-creation of the tragedy of Mary Mallon, that such decisions can never be cut-and-dried, and should not be seen as narrowly medical." —Roy Porter, Nature

"Leavitt's intricate, painstaking, fascinating unraveling of the many factors contributing to Mallon's fate projects an indelible picture of early-20th-century New York, when modern knowledge and sensibilities collided with ancient terrors. . . . Leavitt's writing succeeds in assigning sublime clarity to an excruciatingly complex subject." —Judith E. Harper, The Boston Book Review

"[An] excellent book. . . . Leavitt's carefully crafted account of the life of Typhoid Mary provides an excellent example of the relevance of history to modern public health policy. I highly recommend it to health officials and clinicians, as well as to general readers who just like a good story-or stories." —Barron H. Lerner, M.D., Ph.D., American Journal of Public Health

"Strips away the demonizing mythology surrounding Typhoid Mary, transforming the catchphrase into a person the reader can feel for." —Blake Eskin, The Boston Phoenix Literary Supplement

"Resurrecting forgotten history, Leavitt raises an alarm that is much needed in this day of AIDS." —Publishers Weekly

"Meticulous research, lucid prose and extensive research. . . . Leavitt has written the definitive book on Typhoid Mary. . . . It is a must read." —John S. Marr, M.D., M.P.H., Infections in Medicine

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Mary Mallon was a feisty 36-year-old Irish immigrant who made her living as a cook for wealthy New York City families when she was seized, in 1907, by officers of the city's Public Health Department and detained in a cottage on North Brother Island where, except for two years, she lived in isolation for the remaining 26 years of her life. Her crime was that, although healthy herself, she was a carrier of the typhus bacillus and had innocently infected 22 people. Leavitt raises questions about this famous case: whether race, gender and class bias played a part in Mallon's detention. At the time, feelings against the Irish were strong; and she was a woman and a servant. Male carriers of the bacillus were not deprived of their livelihoods, nor were they isolated from society. The press, clamoring for a news-making story, influenced the harsh treatment of Mallon, demonizing her as "Typhoid Mary." Most important, Leavitt, a professor of medical history at the University of Wisconsin, discusses the difficult issue of serving the public good while protecting individual liberty. She suggests that instead of stigmatizing or impoverishing those who unknowingly threaten the health of the community, we treat them humanely and guarantee them economic security. Resurrecting forgotten history, Leavitt raises an alarm that is much needed in this day of AIDS. (July)
Library Journal
The story of Mary Mallon, the Irish immigrant cook who later became known as "Typhoid Mary," dramatically illustrates the conflict between the needs of an individual and the needs of society. After she infected 22 people with typhoid, the public health authorities forcibly isolated Mallon for most of her adult life in an attempt to limit the spread of the disease. Leavitt (history of medicine, Univ. of Wiscon, Madison) has examined the medical, legal, and social perspectives of the early 20th century as she endeavors to understand Mallon's situation, her reactions to her isolation, and the reaction of the media and of the public. Leavitt concludes her book with an interesting discussion of the relevance of Mallon's story to recent public health concerns. Her discussion of the identification and labeling of people is particularly enlightening with regard to the current HIV dilemma. Leavitt does an admirable job of demonstrating the "delicate balance between personal liberty and public health." Recommended for any health science collection.-Tina Neville, Univ. of South Florida at St. Petersburg Lib.
Booknews
The true story of Mary Mallon, the legend of Typhoid Mary, the early days of epidemiology and microbiology, the conflict between public health and individual freedom, and the ethical implications for a present beset with AIDS and Ebola. Walzer (history of medicine and women's studies, U. of Wisconsin- Madison) also considers whether race, gender, and class played a part in forcibly isolating the Irish immigrant cook for the rest of her life after the outbreak of disease among wealthy New Yorkers was traced to her in 1907. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
A social historian's thoughtful examination of the conflict between individual liberty and public health as exemplified by the case of Mary Mallon, the typhoid fever carrier who, early in this century, was permanently isolated by New York authorities on an island in the East River.

Typhoid Mary, an Irish immigrant cook who unwittingly brought death and disease to those who ate her fare, was in 1907 the first person to be identified as a healthy typhoid carrier; she was also the only one to be imprisoned for life as a menace to public health. Leavitt, who teaches women's studies and the history of medicine at the University of Wisconsin, expertly retells Typhoid Mary's story from several perspectives—those of the then-new science of bacteriology, public health policy, the law, the social prejudices of the period, the media, and Mary herself. Leavitt demonstrates how each of these interpretations reinforces or conflicts with the others, leaving the reader to puzzle out the truths of the differing narratives. Interest in Typhoid Mary did not end with her death in 1938, and Leavitt shows how she has been depicted since then in theatrical presentations, novels, and magazine articles. Indeed, the main question her story raises is especially pertinent in today's era of AIDs and drug-resistant tuberculosis: How is it possible to protect the public health from carriers of diseases without infringing on individuals' civil liberties? Leavitt's response is that programs that stigmatize or impoverish people, or that employ coercive mass isolation, are undemocratic and ultimately ineffective.

By bringing to light the story of an individual both stigmatized and isolated, she makes a vivid and worthy contribution to the search for humane and equitable answers.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807021033
  • Publisher: Beacon
  • Publication date: 7/28/1997
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 217,950
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Judith Walzer Leavitt is professor in the departments of History of Medicine and of Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. She is author of Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America (1986).

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