Tag Archives: epidemics

Germ warfare

13 Sep

September means exposure to back-to-school contagions. That’s why most schools now include had sanitizer on their supply lists. That’s why new teachers get sick so often. I taught at my last school for 12 years and for the last few, I didn’t even get a cold. I knew those germs intimately and had developed a good system of defense. Now that I’m at a new school, I’m being extra cautious, taking more precautions that usual to keep myself healthy, although I think the problem is less severe at a middle school that it is in an elementary school. I hope I’m not carrying new germs into my new school community, either. I;d hate to be a Typhoid Mary.

Yes, poor Mary Mallon, who has gone down in history as Typhoid Mary, or Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America  which is how Susan Campbell Bartoletti refers to Mary in her recently published book.


Publisher’s Summary:This is the story of a cook – a quiet, diligent cook who kept to herself. Her speciality was homemade ice cream topped with fresh peaches, which she served on hot summer days. She worked for some of the wealthiest families in New York, who spoke highly of her skills.

In August 1906, when six members of one household nearly died, the cook mysteriously disappeared – and the hunt for Typhoid Mary began. The resulting story became a tabloid scandal. But the true story of Mary Mallon is far greater than the sensationalized and fear-mongering stories. It’s also a lesser known story of human and civil rights violations. How did this private and obscure domestic cook become one of the most notorious women in American history? What happens to a person whose name and reputation are forever damaged? And who is responsible for the lasting legacy of the woman who became known as Typhoid Mary?

There is not a lot of documentary evidence of Mary Mallon’s life, so the book is as much a narrative of hygiene and social customs at the time Mary lived. Because of this, Bartoletti has to create an idea of what could have happened by using words such as “probably”, “perhaps”, “may have”, etc. In spite of this, I found this a very interesting read, and would be great nonfiction companion to Deborah Hopkinson’s The Great Trouble (about  a cholera plague in London) and  Laurie Halse Anderson’s Fever, 1783 ( a Yellow Fever outbreak in Philadelphia).

A medical mystery

17 Jul


Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat by Gail Jarrow

At the turn of the 20th century, a disease was creeping through the impoverished South. Victims developed a patterned red rash, intestinal distress, dementia, and eventually death. It had been a scourge in Europe for hundreds of years, but, suddenly, it arrived in North America. It turns out that this disease had a simple solution, but it took a dedicated physician and epidemiologist, Joseph Goldberger, to realize that pellagra was caused by extreme nutritional deficiencies.

There are many reasons to praise this book. First, it is an excellent narrative. Gail Jarrow peppers her prose with real life stories of people afflicted by the disease. The black & white photos give enough of a hint of the horrors of pellagra, without being too graphic. The story is presented as a medical mystery and Jarrow shows how Goldberger follow the scientific method to solve the mystery. There are twists, turns and rd herrings. even after Goldberger solved the mystery, doctors refused to believe him. Fortunately, over time, people came to realize he was right. In fact, we are still living with the consequences of his discover: foods enriched with vitamins.

Pair this with one or more of these works of fiction

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