Love, disease, and self-deception: the life of Typhoid Mary

Typhoid MaryShortly after the 19th century turned into the 20th, a medical sleuth named George Soper, whom we would today call an epidemiologist, identified a young Irish immigrant cook in New York City as an asymptomatic carrier of the pathogen that causes typhoid fever. Her name was Mary Mallon, forever afterward to be known to the world as Typhoid Mary.


Fever: A Novel of Typhoid Mary by Mary Beth Keane

@@@@ (4 out of 5)


Mary Mallon, George Soper, and Mary’s on-again, off-again live-in boyfriend, Alfred Briehof are the principal characters in Mary Beth Keane’s illuminating historical novel that traces Typhoid Mary’s life from her arrival in the US in 1883 at the age of 14 until her death in 1938. Fever is at once a love story, medical history, a perceptive study of self-deception, and a period piece that brings to life the teeming microcosm of New York City in the early years of the last century.

Mary is a spirited, self-assured young woman who is at once bright and pretty — and, from an early age, a talented cook. As Keane pictures her, she might have become a celebrity chef had she come of age a century later. She is hopelessly in love with Alfred, a handsome young German immigrant who is both an alcoholic and a scoundrel. But Mary clings to Alfred even through his binges, and she loves her life as a cook to some of New York’s “finest families” until George Soper comes calling.

800px-Typhoid_carrier_polluting_food_-_a_posterKeane is at her best plumbing the depths of Mary’s increasingly complex thoughts about the typhoid fever she is accused of spreading through her cooking. “Disease and death didn’t follow her any more than they followed anyone else,” Mary believed. “People had been dying her whole life . . . Had they had fevers? She supposed they had . . . People became sick, they died. She never heard the word Typhoid until she came to America.” The evolution of Mary’s thinking through the years, as Keane describes it, is a fascinating case study in change — in this case, to adopt the Germ Theory of Disease. Read this book, and you may come away from it with a newfound appreciation of just how difficult it is for many people to accept new ideas.

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