February 22, 2021

Book Review: Terrible Typhoid Mary by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Terrible Typhoid Mary:
A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America

by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

Genres: Nonfiction, History, Biography, Medical Science, Young Adult
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Length: 229 pages
Published: August 4, 2015
Purchase Links: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

My Goodreads Rating: 3.5 or 4 out of 5 stars

Official Book Summary:

"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."


"This I know for sure: Life is...uncertain. As a society and as individuals, we must protect healthy people from disease. We must also treat those suffering from disease in an intelligent, humane, and compassionate way. We need to be rational and keep our fears in check."

Excerpt (from Chapter One):

"In Oyster Bay, Long Island, Mrs. Charles Elliot Warren had fired her cook. It was August 1906, and with several weeks left in the summer, she needed a cook. She could not manage without one. Not with a household of four children and five servants to feed. Not with a social calendar filled to the brim with dinner parties and Sunday teas.

"For a wealthy woman such as Mrs. Warren, it was a terrible fix. There were plenty of servants in America--roughly 2.3 million--but for women like her, a good servant was hard to find.

"Mrs. Warren needed a cook who wouldn't mind the lack of freedom and the fourteen-hour days. She needed someone available morning, noon, and night. Someone who wore a white servant's cap and apron, a plain dress, and thick-soled shoes. Someone who never left the house without permission. Some cooks shared rooms with the other servants. Others made themselves comfortable sleeping in the attic or the cellar.

"A good servant wasn't uppity. She knew her place. If a servant was smarter than her employer, she never showed it. She was humble. She ate in the kitchen, using the plain crockery and ironware, not the good family china and silver. Even though her employer called her by her given name--Bridget or Sally or Peggy or Maggie--she said 'Mister' and 'Sir' and 'Miss' or 'Mrs.' and 'Ma'am.' No matter her age, she was always a girl and never a lady."

My Book Review:

Terribly sad. As I was reading it, I kept feeling that I'd read it sometime before, but I was happy to reread it and reengage with the truth and history behind this tragedy.
In this book, Susan Campbell Bartoletti tells young readers the story of how a woman named Mary Mallon became known as Typhoid Mary, because she was a healthy carrier or asymptomatic carrier of a disease that lived within her thought she showed no symptoms.
While I never could have known that we would all collectively live through the COVID-19 pandemic, Mary's story struck a chord with me pre-covid and is even more pertinent and applicable today.
Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant who worked as a cook in the United States. Fecal matter on her hands infected the food she prepared and consequently the many households in which she lived and worked, sadly causing at least one death.
Though modern-day critics would say, "Why didn't she just wash her hands?" to rid her hands from transmitting typhoid, she would have had to wash them in 140 degree water which would have caused burns. Thus, she was likely clean and might have consistently washed her hands, but ultimately she could not keep from infecting others.
Ultimately, Mary ran from the police, brandished a carving knife at an epidemiologist who tried to stop her cooking, and lived a life of forced isolation and imprisonment. However, when she was offered freedom if she would live in a way in which she would no longer infect others, she later once again became a cook in a hospital where she did just that. Thinking about her life, the situation in which she lived, and learning about what physicians and scientists understood and did not yet know about the transmission of disease, made this book a really fascinating and educational read. Even though it's written for young adults, it could easily be enjoyed by adult readers.

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