Scoop Review of Books

Typhoid and Mary

Fever by Mary Beth Keane (Simon & Schuster 2013)
Reviewed by Ruth Brassington

I first heard of “Typhoid Mary” when I was kid; my father’s idea of a relationship with his children was to fire facts at them, sometimes but not always in context. Anyway, I knew enough to always wash my hands.

Little was known about transmission of disease until the late nineteenth century, and chlorination of water supplies didn’t begin until early in the twentieth. The need for sanitation and hand-washing was recognised by many but hygiene practices were not always adhered to.

In Fever, the fictionalised story of professional cook Mary Mallon’s life as a typhoid carrier, there’s back story, front story and everything in between. It is Mary’s story as she cooks her way through her working world until it is taken from her by the sanitary engineer who identifies a link between her employment venues and the spread of typhoid. It is also the story of New York at the start of the twentieth century, with its boarding houses, laundries, sweatshops, and isolation wards.

The New York Department of Health opened the first public health laboratory early in the 1900s and started applying their bacteriological knowledge to prevent and control disease. Once Mary Mallon was suspected of the spread of typhoid, the officials wanted her to submit to tests – or to have her gall bladder removed. As a seemingly healthy typhoid carrier, she could carry and spread the disease even with no awareness of ever having had it.

This fictionalised account of Mary’s personality and working life takes us through what, for her as well as for those she infected, were harrowing times in a heavily populated place. Against the background of a New York full of ignorance, poverty, overcrowding and class distinction, Mary moves and cooks her way through this well-portrayed phase of a great city’s development. You don’t need an interest in public health to appreciate this richly detailed historical novel.

Author Mary Beth Keane, like her subject Mary Mallon, is Irish by parentage and lives near New York. Her well-received first novel, The Walking People (2009) also features working Irish immigrants in New York.

Typhoid Fever is rare in New Zealand, with about 40 known cases being treated per year, usually associated with overseas travel. New Zealand’s premise is to: Exclude chronic carriers from work if in a high-risk occupational group.” That’s good to know.