Monday, October 22, 2007
52. Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public Health - Judith Walzer Leavitt

In the early years of the 20th century, a seemingly healthy woman was forcibly seized by health and law enforcement officials, placed in quarantine, and declared a menace to the public's health. She spent the remainder of her life confined to a one room cottage on a island in New York's East River. Her crime was that, although healthy herself, she was a carrier of the typhus bacillus and had innocently infected 22 people.

Mary Mallon, known to most of us as "Typhoid Mary", is the subject of Judith Leavitt's book Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public's Health. Rather than simply re-telling her story, Leavitt looks at the various factors that may have caused Mallon's "sentence" to be so much harsher than those of other "healthy carriers". While other carriers, some of whom infected far greater numbers than Mallon (and which resulted in more deaths), were free to walk the streets with little or no limitations on their liberties, Mary Mallon was sentenced to live out the rest of her days on a tiny island with little company. Even when other healthy carriers were quarantined, it was only temporary and they were eventually returned to continue their lives in freedom. Mary Mallon was a working class, Irish immigrant and female. Three strikes working against her which came into play at various points during her story both from the attitudes and expectations of the middle/upper class health and law enforcement officials, and the public at large who came to learn about her story through the various local newspapers.

Leavitt examines the argument of public safety vs. personal liberties in regards to Mallon's particular situation throughout the book. She also views it in the light of the Cuba's handling of AIDS and at one point even looks at Hitler's solution for dealing with syphillis. Her focus on which is more important is extremely topical today given our own reactions to the initial emergence of AIDS as well as how we've chosen (or failed depending on how you look at it) to carriers of infectious diseases, including drug-resistant tuberculosis.

Leavitt's work is fair and unbiased. Overall a very interesting look at the case of "Typhoid Mary", a moniker I no longer feel too comfortable using after reading it. I recommend giving it a read if you get a chance.


Geraldine said...

I really want to come back to your blog and check out all the reviews. Great stuff!!!


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