Monday, January 18, 2016

All in the name of public health

But tell that to Mary Mallon aka Typhoid Mary.

I’ve had two recently published books about Mary on my to-read pile for a while and finally got to them over the holidays.  (Not the most chipper reading, for sure, but entirely fascinating, nonetheless.)

 The two books are:

Both books cover pretty much the same content: an outbreak of typhoid that is tracked down by a vigilant and somewhat obsessive sanitary engineer, Dr. George Soper to a household cook, Mary Mallon.

Mary is identified as a healthy carrier of the typhoid bacteria. She is able to contaminate raw food when she prepares it for the families she works for, making them sick and killing a couple of them over a period of years. She is eventually apprehended, tested and quarantined at a hospital on an island in the East River between Queens and the Bronx. She lives there for three years until the health department releases her when she promises not to cook for other people. She struggles for a few years doing other types of work but eventually returns to cooking at a hospital only to infect newborn babies and mothers. She is returned to North Brother Island where she lives until 1938.

The tension in the story is the balance between personal rights and liberty and public health.

The most interesting part of this for me was reading the two books back-to-back. Starting with Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s book, Terrible Typhoid Mary, (I have found her books about the KKK and Hitler Youth fascinating), I anticipated a strongly told narrative about Mary Mallon’s trials and tribulations. The book attempts to make Mary a real person and tries to get us to empathize with her. And I did get there in part. Bartoletti doesn’t down play that Mary created some of her own problems. Mary knowingly went back to cooking for others knowing the consequences.  Nevertheless, a good part of her life was lived fairly isolated.

It wasn’t until I read the second book, Fatal Fever, that I realized that Bartoletti’s book, Terrible Typhoid Mary, had gone further in suggesting that Mary Mallon, despite her noncompliance and resistance to testing, had not been treated fairly.  Other healthy carriers had been identified but not incarcerated and isolated like Mary.

In Terrible Typhoid Mary, it is also suggested that she was given experimental medical treatments to see if she could be cured, whereas other carriers were not experimented on. In Bartoletti’s book, Soper comes across as especially diligent and perhaps biased against Mary describing her more like a man than a woman because of her fiery temper (she threatened him with a sharp carving fork when he asked to test her blood, urine and feces), her strength, and use of rough language saying “her mind had a distinctly masculine character” (p.45). Because Mary didn’t fit society’s or Soper’s ideal of a woman, this may have biased him against her.

Bartoletti also emphasizes that by identifying the first healthy carrier of the typhoid bacteria he had an opportunity to make a name for himself.  After Mary was quarantined and living on North Brother Island, he spoke at public engagements and published works about Mary’s case.

In Fatal Fever, aspects of Soper’s work are framed differently by not including the information about his perceptions about Mary and down playing his seeming desire for public fame. His passion for finding people like Mary was for the benefit of public health.

Both books are referenced in-depth, with footnotes, bibliographies and indexes. Bartoletti’s book also includes a timeline.  I liked the layout of Jarrow’s Fatal Fever and think students will find it a little more appealing because of interspersed illustrations and photographs and white space framing the text. Bartoletti’s book has the pictures mostly grouped into a section at the back of the book.

Still the question remains: how far in the interests of public health should an individual’s right be protected when others can be placed in jeopardy?

I recommend both books be used together to compare the way the same information is used but framed differently.  Both books would be suitable for grades 7 and up.


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