Terrible Typhoid Mary by Susan Campbell Bartolli looks beyond the tabloid scandal of Mary’s life. This well-researched narrative provides an objective yet sympathetic portrayal of not only Mary but also of the other main players in the drama that become Mary’s life. Scientific beliefs of the time about germs are explored, as well as the issue of human and civil rights. An absorbing read, this text of less than 200 words both informed and intrigued me.
One admirable aspect of Terrible Typhoid Mary is the balance that Bartolli achieves in her depiction of Mary. On one hand, here is a cook who prides herself on the quality of her food along with the cleanliness of both the preparation and clean-up of meals. On the other hand, here is a carrier of typhoid who refuses to allow doctors to take samples of her urine, feces, and blood. Not only that, but Mary becomes brutish and violent when anyone tries to approach her with suggestions about how she might take proper precautions to avoid being a carrier. How does one reconcile these two sides of Mary? Bartolli shares how Mary’s past might have led her to show extreme caution, as well notes that many people (even today) remain skeptical of the medical and scientific community.
Besides Mary, another significant character is George Soper. A sanitary engineer at the time, he was often hired to improve living conditions and public health and to try to prevent the outbreak of epidemics. On the one hand, here is a conscientious man dedicated to finding the truth. Just as important, he is also passionate about protecting society. On the other hand, here is a man who believes that in find a healthy carrier of typhoid, he just might be on the verge of a medical breakthrough that could make him famous. How does on reconcile those two sides of Soper? Bartolli shares letters from the sanitary engineer that show him as originally sympathetic of Mary as well as that over time reveal his growing confusion over how anyone presented with facts could choose to ignore them.
Another admirable aspect of Terrible Typhoid Mary is how well-grounded it is in an accurate setting. A complaint that I sometimes have about historical accounts, especially those which are portrayed on the screen, is how they ignore beliefs of the time to make a point. In contrast, Bartolli takes time to explain the varying viewpoints about the germ theory that had existed before the 1900’s, some of which may have influenced how ones reacted to Mary. She also makes clear how risky and uncertain treatments for typhoid were back in Mary’s day, and so why Mary may have been reluctant to listen to doctors. In addition, Bartolli takes time to explain the legal powers in place in the early 1900’s, ones which allowed the medical community to imprison Mary on a secluded island, but which would not have allowed such a practice today. While Bartolli does point the questions which arose about the ethical treatment of Mary, she never imposes our modern-day values on any of the characters.
That Terrible Typhoid Mary is accurate in setting will come as no surprise to anyone who looks at the book’s back page. Over twenty-five pages are dedicated to crediting sources and providing additional reading lists. Moreover, not only is a source provided for pretty much every page and every chapter but Bartolli also elaborates on the text. As for the additional reading lists, there are ones about Mary, George Soper, typhoid and other diseases, public health law, and even about tabloid journalism. Wow!
Bartolli has won honors and awards for her various nonfiction books. If Terrible Typhoid Mary is an example of the quality of her work, I can understand the accolades. For anyone interested in reading the story behind the tabloid scandal of Mary’s life, Bartolli has offered an excellent option.
My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.
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