The medical detective story takes place during the early 1900s when typhoid fever outbreaks were common in the United States. The book follows the epidemiologists and public health experts who studied the disease and developed ways to control its spread. Part of their work involved tracking down the source of a typhoid outbreak. The most notorious carrier of the disease was Irish immigrant Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary.
Mary’s story raises questions we still grapple with today: When a deadly, highly contagious, and untreatable disease strikes, what do we expect health authorities to do? What government actions would—or should—we tolerate? Does the protection of a city’s population trump the rights and freedom of an individual?
Topics covered include American history (1900 to 1930s, New York City tenements, immigration), disease (germ theory, sanitation, current typhoid treatments & prevention methods); biology; medical history; government (New York City & State Health Departments, US Public Health Service, courts). The book contains a timeline, source notes, bibliography, a list of famous typhoid victims, and recommended books and websites.
The PDF available HERE is an educator’s guide developed by the book’s publisher. It includes activities and discussion questions correlated with Common Core State Standards.
More to Explore
- “The Most Dangerous Woman in America.” PBS and WGBH Educational Foundation.
The online companion to the Nova episode provides a program transcript, teacher’s guide, and links to information about the history of quarantines and the work of epidemiologists.
- “The Curious Career of Typhoid Mary” by George A. Soper. Bulletin of New York Academy of Sciences, October 1939.
Read George Soper’s 1939 account of how he tracked down Mary Mallon, the last of several published articles that he wrote about the case.
- “The Most Horrible Seaside Vacation.” Radiolab.
Listen to a conversation about the Typhoid Mary case, including interviews with historians and a visit to abandoned North Brother Island.
- Typhoid Fever. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Typhoid Fever. World Health Organization.
- Baker, S. Josephine. Fighting for Life. New York: New York Review of Books, 2013. (Baker’s autobiography)
- Bourdain, Anthony. Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2001.
- Leavitt, Judith Walzer. Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
- Keane, Mary Beth. Fever. New York: Scribner, 2013. (adult fiction)
- Chibbaro, Julie. Deadly. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2011. (YA fiction)