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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.
“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