Published in 2013, Fever
by Mary Beth Keane tells the story of the woman known as “Typhoid Mary,” the first person in America to be identified as a healthy carrier of typhoid fever. The novel is told from the perspective of Mary, giving the reader an intimate view into the life of a new immigrant in America and the difficulties that plagued young women at the time.
The book also offers an interesting perspective that might be challenging for modern-day readers to understand, but at the time, very little was known about how contagious diseases were transmitted from one person to the next. Keane does a wonderful job of providing a first-person account of the situation complete with vivid detail that is as engrossing as it is informative.
Mary Mallon immigrates to New York City from Ireland when she is just fifteen years old. A stubborn and fearless young girl, she dreams of being a cook, vowing to work her way up from the lowest rung of the domestic service ladder. Due to her wit and enterprising skill, she works her way to the kitchen and discovers in herself the talents of a budding chef.
The elite of New York’s aristocracy soon seeks after Mary. She has established a life for herself with a great deal of independence for a woman of the time. It seems as though Mary is achieving all of her goals, building the life she has always dreamed of.
In 1906, Mary goes to work for the Warren family at Oyster Bay. There is a typhoid outbreak in the country at the time, but this specific area is thought to be devoid of typhoid outbreaks. After Mary’s arrival, six people become ill from typhoid. The Warren family hires Dr. George Soper, a sanitation engineer, tasking him with getting to the bottom of the outbreaks and identifying their source.
Soper learns that the family has recently hired an Irish cook who arrived in the home just three weeks before the start of the outbreaks. After tracing Mary, the cook’s, employment history, he finds that many outbreaks occurred shortly after her arrival in a home.
Soper approaches Mary and asks her to give him a stool and urine sample. However, she is outraged at his accusation and adamantly denies his request. He makes several attempts to convince Mary that she could be the source of the disease until finally, she is arrested and sent to North Brother Island. Here, she is forced to undergo the tests requested by Soper and, after providing a stool sample, it tests positive for typhoid bacteria.
At the time the story is set, in the early twentieth century, doctors were not yet fully aware of the role bacteria and micro-organisms played in transmitting illness and disease. It was not yet understood that someone could appear perfectly healthy and be asymptomatic but could make others sick by acting as the carrier of harmful bacteria.
Although Mary had never had typhoid herself, in her gallbladder she carried Salmonella typhi, the strain of bacteria known to cause typhoid fever. After being questioned, Mary admitted to rarely washing her hands after using the bathroom and when cooking. The bacteria were then transferred from Mary’s hands onto any food she prepared, and anything that went uncooked had the potential to infect those she was cooking for, causing them to become sick with typhoid.
Mary writes to her lover, Alfred Briehof, asking him to help her find a lawyer to argue her case. Unfortunately, Alfred isn’t much help. In 1909, Mary finds her own lawyer, Francis O’Neill, who manages to arrange for a hearing for Mary.
Mary and O’Neill prepare for the trial, in which he tells her she must swear not to work as a cook as this will allow her to be set free. Meanwhile, Mary reminisces about the time she spent working in various households and the day-to-day affairs, as well as humorous anecdotes that arose. She fondly remembers the relationships she has formed with the people for whom she has cooked, and realizes what a crucial role cooking has played in her life and in establishing her own identity since she has arrived in America.
After several hearings, Mary is allowed to go free as long as she promises not to seek employment as a cook. She agrees, finding work as a laundress, but eventually returns to working as a cook which leads to her infecting more people with typhoid fever.
In 1915, there is a major outbreak of typhoid at Sloane Hospital for Women, which results in Dr. Soper finally catching up with Mary. She is once again sent to North Brother Island, where she is forced to remain for the rest of her life.