Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow

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fatal feverFatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow
Calkins Creek, 2015.

Following her medical detective story about pellagra (Red Madness, 2014), Ms. Jarrow now tackles the rise and fall of typhoid in this attractively presented and readable narrative nonfiction account.

Mary Mallon is at the center of the narrative as “the first case of a healthy typhoid carrier ever found in the United States.” As a cook for many wealthy families she had inadvertently spread the disease, though remained rosy-cheeked with health herself. In the race to track her down, we meet sanitation engineer, George Soper aka the germ detective, Dr Josephine Baker who eventually brings her in and others who worked in the public health arena to bring this epidemic under control. Once Mary Mallon is detained, despite her protestations of her innocence, she is isolated against her will, ultimately for the rest of her life.

Ms. Jarrow is a skilled historical writer, using primary documents including letters, reports and journals to weave a clear and interesting story of a time not too long ago when clean water and robust sanitation was not the norm. The use of contemporary photographs is exemplary, adding interest and illuminating the text.

The main narrative flows well, and three significant color-coded detours fill out important information on the disease itself, the science of carrying a disease and other healthy carriers who never had the notoriety of Ms Mallon. Extensive and interesting back matter gives a list of famous typhoid victims, a timeline and glossary, as well as detailed source notes, a bibliography and books and websites for more information.

However, there are few primary sources about Mary Mallon herself, and this leaves something of an emotional hole at the heart of the book. The central moral dilemma about the rights of an individual versus the health of the general population resonates with today’s debate about vaccines, but is really only drawn out in the author’s note at the end.

This larger format book, with colorful design, and a well-organized and spacious layout including chapters broken into short sections, is a great book for a middle grader to read for either interest or for a school project.

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