Anyone with a passion for getting history right is my friend, and Gail Jarrow falls in that category. I am honored to host her today, in celebration of her newest book, Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary (Calkins Creek).
I love history, and I love science. That’s why I write nonfiction books combining the two. Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary is the second in my Trilogy of Deadly Diseases. The first book, published in 2014, is Red Madness: How a Medical Mystery Changed What We Eat, about pellagra. The third, Bubonic Panic: When Plague Invaded America, is due out in spring 2016.
During the early 1900s, typhoid fever, pellagra, and plague were deadly threats in the U.S. Today they’re no longer on most Americans’ radar, thanks to brilliant scientists and dedicated public health physicians. My trilogy tells the stories of these scientists as they made their discoveries and of the doctors who used that new knowledge to save lives. The history is full of drama, tragedy, heroes and villains.
Typhoid Mary was a real person named Mary Mallon. An Irish immigrant, she became a cook for wealthy New York families. Unfortunately for her and at least 49 victims, she also became a typhoid carrier. Mary never showed symptoms of the disease, but she infected people when she prepared their food. After New York City health officials realized that Mary was the source of several outbreaks, they kept her on a quarantine island—for 26 years.
I wanted readers to understand why health officials handled Mary this way. To do that, I had to show how devastating typhoid fever was to individuals, families, and communities. But the historical record contained few details about Mary’s victims. How could I personalize the horrible symptoms, the prolonged suffering, and the heartbreak of survivors? Then I made a serendipitous find. The sanitary engineer who tracked down Mary Mallon in New York City in 1907—Dr. George Soper—had helped my hometown of Ithaca, New York, recover from a 1903 typhoid outbreak. This epidemic was caused by contaminated drinking water from a creek less than two miles from my house!
The archives at Ithaca’s Cornell University contained personal accounts of the victims, including many university students who fell ill and died. These gave me the details I needed. I had my story arc for Fatal Fever. People feared typhoid fever in the early 1900s. Today, the public reaction to another frightening disease—Ebola—shows how relevant history can be. That’s one reason I love writing about it.
Gail Jarrow is an award-winning author of nonfiction books for ages 8 and above. Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary [Calkins Creek, 2015] received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly, and is a Junior Library Guild selection. Red Madness [Calkins Creek, 2014] was awarded the Jefferson Cup for a distinguished American history book for young people. Gail lives in Ithaca, New York. Visit her here.