TYPHOID MARY by Judith Walzer Leavitt

TYPHOID MARY

Captive to the Public's Health
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 A social historian's thoughtful examination of the conflict between individual liberty and public health as exemplified by the case of Mary Mallon, the typhoid fever carrier who, early in this century, was permanently isolated by New York authorities on an island in the East River. Typhoid Mary, an Irish immigrant cook who unwittingly brought death and disease to those who ate her fare, was in 1907 the first person to be identified as a healthy typhoid carrier; she was also the only one to be imprisoned for life as a menace to public health. Leavitt, who teaches women's studies and the history of medicine at the University of Wisconsin, expertly retells Typhoid Mary's story from several perspectives--those of the then-new science of bacteriology, public health policy, the law, the social prejudices of the period, the media, and Mary herself. Leavitt demonstrates how each of these interpretations reinforces or conflicts with the others, leaving the reader to puzzle out the truths of the differing narratives. Interest in Typhoid Mary did not end with her death in 1938, and Leavitt shows how she has been depicted since then in theatrical presentations, novels, and magazine articles. Indeed, the main question her story raises is especially pertinent in today's era of AIDs and drug-resistant tuberculosis: How is it possible to protect the public health from carriers of diseases without infringing on individuals' civil liberties? Leavitt's response is that programs that stigmatize or impoverish people, or that employ coercive mass isolation, are undemocratic and ultimately ineffective. By bringing to light the story of an individual both stigmatized and isolated, she makes a vivid and worthy contribution to the search for humane and equitable answers. (photos and illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: July 15th, 1996
ISBN: 0-8070-2102-4
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Beacon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1996