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Typhoid Mary : Captive to the Public's Health [Hardcover]

Judith Walzer Leavitt
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)


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Book Description

May 1996 0807021024 978-0807021026 1st
Relates the remarkable and tragic story of Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant cook, who became known as "Typhoid Mary" when she infected many New Yorkers with the deadly disease, and her isolation from the public until her death thirty years later.


Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Mary Mallon was a feisty 36-year-old Irish immigrant who made her living as a cook for wealthy New York City families when she was seized, in 1907, by officers of the city's Public Health Department and detained in a cottage on North Brother Island where, except for two years, she lived in isolation for the remaining 26 years of her life. Her crime was that, although healthy herself, she was a carrier of the typhus bacillus and had innocently infected 22 people. Leavitt raises questions about this famous case: whether race, gender and class bias played a part in Mallon's detention. At the time, feelings against the Irish were strong; and she was a woman and a servant. Male carriers of the bacillus were not deprived of their livelihoods, nor were they isolated from society. The press, clamoring for a news-making story, influenced the harsh treatment of Mallon, demonizing her as "Typhoid Mary." Most important, Leavitt, a professor of medical history at the University of Wisconsin, discusses the difficult issue of serving the public good while protecting individual liberty. She suggests that instead of stigmatizing or impoverishing those who unknowingly threaten the health of the community, we treat them humanely and guarantee them economic security. Resurrecting forgotten history, Leavitt raises an alarm that is much needed in this day of AIDS.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

The story of Mary Mallon, the Irish immigrant cook who later became known as "Typhoid Mary," dramatically illustrates the conflict between the needs of an individual and the needs of society. After she infected 22 people with typhoid, the public health authorities forcibly isolated Mallon for most of her adult life in an attempt to limit the spread of the disease. Leavitt (history of medicine, Univ. of Wiscon, Madison) has examined the medical, legal, and social perspectives of the early 20th century as she endeavors to understand Mallon's situation, her reactions to her isolation, and the reaction of the media and of the public. Leavitt concludes her book with an interesting discussion of the relevance of Mallon's story to recent public health concerns. Her discussion of the identification and labeling of people is particularly enlightening with regard to the current HIV dilemma. Leavitt does an admirable job of demonstrating the "delicate balance between personal liberty and public health." Recommended for any health science collection.?Tina Neville, Univ. of South Florida at St. Petersburg Lib.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 331 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Publishing Group; 1st edition (May 1996)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807021024
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807021026
  • Product Dimensions: 8.9 x 6.1 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #300,411 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Painstaking research into a historical personality February 19, 2001
Format:Paperback
Leavitt's book, Typhoid Mary, attempts to reconstruct the life and times of Mary Mallon, the first identified typhoid carrier in the United States. Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant, and worked as a cook among the elite families of New York city. She is also the centerpiece of one of the scientific advances of the twentieth century: the understanding that some illnesses are caused by germs, rather than vague miasmas, and that apparently healthy individuals can spread these germs to others. An understanding of this scientific truth, however, raises an even more puzzling question: how can the public address these individuals who, through no bad acts on their part, are able to risk the public's health? Leavitt analyzes Mary's story with the use of seven different perspectives: that of medicine, public policy, the law, social expectations, newspaper accounts, her own, and the story's modern retelling. These seven accounts combine to provide the reader a full account of the medical and social conditions of the day, and how they combined to account for Mary's lifelong isolation. The research on this book is well-done and the writing interesting. My biggest complaint was that some of the material is repetitive, as the different perspectives do overlap at times.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting Social History May 2, 2000
Format:Paperback
Less a history of Mary Mallon herself than of how the U.S. reacted to typhoid, Typhoid Mary makes for an interesting look into turn-of-the-century understandings of epidemiology and public health.
Leavitt does a nice job of telling the story of how Mary was identified as a vector for typhoid and of how she was treated by the state of New York. However, the book is laced with lots of analysis and attempts to draw connections between the way typhoid was treated/viewed in the late 1800s and early 1900s and with how AIDS has been treated/viewed in the late 1900s. These connections are valid and interesting, but the manner in which they are scattered throughout the text become a bit distracting. This said, Typhoid Mary remains enlightening and interesting reading.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worthwhile Read July 22, 2002
Format:Paperback
Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public's Health by Judith Walzer Leavitt could be shorter. Not much shorter, just a bit shorter. The beginning of the book is surprisingly dull and a great deal of information is repeated unnecessarily.
That said, Typhoid Mary is very well-written, even the dull bits. The research is well-documented and complete. And the subject matter is more than a little engrossing. Who was the woman behind the label "Typhoid Mary"?
Leavitt is making the link between typhoid and AIDS, in particular the problem of finding the balance between protecting individual rights and protecting the community. She spends time on this subject towards the end of the book and has some compassionate and reasonable things to say. The strongest part of the book, however, is in the history and in Leavitt's appreciation of Mary Mallon as an individual. The most interesting parts of the book (and where the writing picks up considerably) are the chapters on the public perception of Typhoid Mary throughout the 20th century.
Recommendation: Buy it if it's a subject that already interests you. Otherwise, check it out of the library.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting story, poorly portrayed February 4, 2012
Format:Paperback
This book has the potential to be quite good; Mary Mallon's story and the ethical questions it raises are fascinating and as relevant today as they were nearly one hundred years ago. However, Leavitt's prose is so redundant and unorganized that it distracts from what could be a very interesting read. A reviewer of another one of her books phrased it quite well: "while the author makes good use of quotations and historical information, so much of each chapter is repeated that I would liken it to reading while banging ones head against a wall." Her habit of beginning each chapter with an explanation of its purpose in the first person ( "In this chapter, I examine the legal perspective on Mary Mallon's situation" "In this chapter, I explore some of the social expectations...") and closing with a series of rhetorical questions is, quite frankly, lazy writing. Her style comes off as rather pedantic, constantly using the inclusive "we" and "us" ("Mallon's story reminds us..." "We as a society have decisions to make..." "We can understand..." etc.) Leavitt seems to be committed to stating the obvious and doesn't trust her readers to remember what she wrote mere pages before. By page 60., Leavitt had told Mary's whole story about four times. The book was also missing the narrative arc and character development that I have come to expect from good historical nonfiction. The subject matter is very well researched but when the diary excerpts and personal accounts from the historical figures in question are better written and more compelling than the actual book, it makes for a tiresome read. This book badly needed a good edit and could have been about 50 pages shorter. As a college student who had to read this book for class, I would consider it to be good work at the senior undergraduate level, but I expected much more from a PhD with a publishing team.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well-documented but rather boring June 2, 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I was hoping for a juicy, bacteriological whodunit, although we already know whodunit. This is more of an academic treatise on a public health issue from the early 20th century. Well-written, but delving into more detail than I would liked for personal reading. It is a bit dated, with many parallels drawn to HIV/AIDS, which was still fairly new and mysterious at the time the book was written. I am pleased, however, that a fellow nurse has published this book and from an academic standpoint, it does not disappoint. The ethical dilemma would have been the big story in today's world: can society take away the freedom of someone who has committed no crime? Or is being a 'carrier' of a disease a crime?
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Very poorly written book.
I was really disappointed in this book. The subject matter was interesting, but the author repeated herself entirely too much. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Bernadette
2.0 out of 5 stars Meh.
Boring. To me. But if public health policies are your thing, then this is the book for you. Also, poor Mary did very little damage as typhoid was rarely deadly and, really, all she... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Wit-knee
3.0 out of 5 stars Repetitive
I thought that this story would be much more revealing than it was. The same information is repeated in each chapter and I wish it was more of a story of the Mary Mallon and less... Read more
Published 14 months ago by Benjamin K. Harrison
4.0 out of 5 stars Personal Liberty Vs. Public Safety
One of the other reviewers commented that this was really not a biography at all. I don't really agree with this. Read more
Published 21 months ago by Lionel S. Taylor
5.0 out of 5 stars Thorough Historcal Analysis of the Pheomenon "Typhoid Mary"
Leavitt's, Typhoid Mary, is a rigorous historical analysis of "Typhoid Mary". The most interesting aspect of this book is the multiple (atleast 7) historical perspectives it... Read more
Published on December 10, 2010 by R. Batta
5.0 out of 5 stars Captive to the Public Imagination
'Typhoid Mary' has become a catchphrase for disease, pestilence, and death. Most people have heard the nickname, but few know the particulars. Read more
Published on December 16, 2007 by Rose Keefe
4.0 out of 5 stars A COMMUNITY HEALTH PROBLEM IN THE PREANTIBIOTIC ERA
I found this book very interesting and the multiple aspects of the story are perfectly analyzed by the author. Read more
Published on August 5, 2007 by Luis Muñoz
4.0 out of 5 stars In Depth Read
Leavitt thoroughly explores Mary Mallon's story from a number of angles - social, historical, medical, etc. Read more
Published on January 28, 2007 by Burgundy Damsel
4.0 out of 5 stars Correction of error in Publisher's Weekly review
There is a significant error in the review by Publisher's Weekly. They refer to the microbe as the "typhus bacillus."

It should be the "typhoid bacillus. Read more
Published on October 13, 2004 by Lyman A. Magee
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