Book Review: Terrible Typhoid Mary

Terrible Typhoid Mary by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

typhoid mary

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2015

This is the disturbing story of a woman who was a carrier of the typoid virus and an overzealous health official who saw her as a menace to public health. Mary Mallon was a cook who worked in a variety of homes and institutions. There were 24 cases of typhoid associated with her various places of work.

George Soper, a health official is clued into the cases surrounding Mary and begins working the the NYC Board of Health to convince her that she is a carrier of the disease. She is not trusting of any health officials. Eventually, she is detained against her will. Her story and identity is leaked to the press. Her reputation is ruined and the press keeps digging to learn more about “typhoid Mary.” Eventually she is released, promising to never work in a kitchen again. She struggles to find employment and 5 years later she works in a kitchen in a maternity hospital under a fake name. A typhoid outbreak occurs and she is imprisoned again.

Bartoletti does a good job trying to allow the reader to understand both Mary’s perspective and the health officials perspective. She tries to make sure that she’s telling the story in an honest way. It’s very easy to cast the health officials as the villians when they violate Mary’s civil rights, it’s also easy to blame Mary for not providing fecal samples and taking measures to protect public health. She tries to explain everyone’s motivation, citing primary source documents in a way that remains objective.


“If you’re squeamish and don’t like to read about germs, then you should stop now and find some other book to read.” (pg. 1)

“According to soical research, a person’s trust level is set by his or her mid-twenties.” (pg 55)

“Many Americans believed that the government had a responsibility to protect them from infections diseases such as typhoid-even if it meant that individuals such as Mary Mallon lost their freedom.” (pg. 90)

“She told a New York World  reporter that there were ‘two kinds of justice in America’ and that ‘she had not been given the benefit of the reasonable doubt which is allowed even to murderers.” (pg. 117)

“There’s a danger in writing a person’s life from a historical vantage point, for hindsight can be smug.” (pg. 153)


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One thought on “Book Review: Terrible Typhoid Mary

  1. […] While Terrible Typoid Mary focuses on Mary Mallon, Fatal Fever focuses on typhoid disease at the turn of the century. With bright, colorful pictures, this book will keep readers interested. […]


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