In 1907, Mary Mallon, an Irish-born cook, is identified as the source of typhoid fever outbreaks in several of the households where she has been employed. Deemed a healthy carrier, she nevertheless cannot comprehend her role in the tragedies and rejects her responsibility. How could she harbor the germ that causes the disease and not be ill herself?

Led by Dr. George Soper, the authorities ensure that she is incarcerated on North Brother Island in the Hudson River – until a lawyer takes an interest in her case. An important part of her defence comes from the growing knowledge that many other people are also healthy carriers of the germ and they have not been incarcerated. Finally in 1910, she regains her freedom on condition that she never cook for others again.

But Mary loves cooking, and it is a far more lucrative occupation than her work as a laundress. In addition, she needs to support her common-law partner, Alfred, who has a serious drinking problem and is chronically unable to find work. Alfred had left her for another woman during her incarceration and succeeds in giving up alcohol. But he still loves Mary and abandons the other woman; he vanishes out west and is injured in a horrible fire that leaves him deformed and in chronic pain. Mary finds him and tries to help him, but Alfred now slowly slips into drug addiction.

The temptation to start cooking again is too great. The inevitable happens and Mary is caught. This time, however, she does not protest and ends her days as a captive of New York City.


Based on the true story of Mary Mallon (1869-1938), often called “Typhoid Mary,” this novel draws heavily on the scholarly work of Judith W. Leavitt, Captive to the Public’s Health (1996). In many ways, it represents a thought experiment to explore why the seemingly intelligent Mary could make such dangerous choices for herself and for others.

It opens with the 1899 story of a family who develops typhoid and the death of their little boy whom Mary loved dearly. Mary also carefully nursed the sick family members and they were grateful. She too had experienced a typhoid loss and no one had blamed her for it.

The relationship with the addicted Alfred is another potential explanation for her reckless behavior. Intriguingly Alfred is far more prone to seeking behavior when he is with the very strong Mary than when he is without her.

The zeal of Soper and his obsessive need to find and control Mary is somewhat caricatured, but it will raise interesting questions about the rights of the individual versus the rights of the collective. 



Place Published

New York



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