Imagine this scene. There, in the kitchen where Mary is working, sits George Soper, “a sanitary engineer with an interest in disease prevention.” He has proven to be a most-able medical detective and is sure that he has discovered the cause of numerous unexplained typhoid cases. The suspect is Mary. And there she is, her hands fast at work preparing her employer's supper.
Soper begins to explain to Mary, who remains quite unmoved in her stoic appearance, that her body may be harboring typhoid, that she may be unwittingly passing on the disease through her cooking.
Would Mary be willing to clear up the mystery by providing Soper with specimens that he can send away to a laboratory? If those tests prove she has typhoid germs in her body, would she be willing to be treated? Notice Mary's response:
“Soper forgot the old adage that cooks rule the kitchen. He didn’t notice the anger that flashed across Mary’s face. He certainly didn’t notice the carving fork lying on the table. But Mary did. She swore at Soper, grabbed the carving fork, and lunged…. And he ran.”
For years the struggle between Mary and those involved in her case continued. Medical professionals remained intent on proving to her that she was spreading the disease through her cooking. She remained steadfast in her belief that she was not.
Mary’s story is one volume within the pages of American history in which readers will learn so much. They will hear about the spread of disease that occurred among the many immigrants that flocked to New York City in the 19th Century. They will discover the power that the New York City Board of Health had back in those early years. They will see firsthand how yellow journalism altered the lives of hard-working individuals, individuals like Mary. They will experience the frustration that comes when an uninformed public is slow to accept medical proof and thus ends up harming others. And they will find themselves pondering the question regarding forced quarantines, a question that remains down to this day.
Terrible Typhoid Mary, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers, is middle-grade, non-fiction par excellence, for Susan Campbell Bartoletti has woven together accurately-researched details, quotes from primary sources, and archival photographs like a storytelling master. In my opinion, this book reads as easily as a Robin Cook medical-thriller!