Book review: Fever by Mary Beth Keane

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THE facts about Mary Mallon are well known. She arrived in the US from Co Tyrone in 1883. Between 1899 and 1915 she worked as a cook in the homes of a number of wealthy families, and later in a hospital. Various people for whom she cooked suffered bouts of ­typhoid fever. Several died.

Fever

Mary Beth Keane

Simon & Schuster, £12.99

A man named George Soper, a sort of medical detective, tracked the source of the ­infection to Mary – soon to ­become known as Typhoid Mary, the first known asymptomatic, or healthy carrier of the disease.

A woman of robust temper, she cursed her accusers, attacked them physically and fled them when she could; to no avail.

In 1907, she was quarantined outside New York for three years until a soft-hearted health commissioner allowed her to return to the city as long as she never cooked for anyone again and regularly washed her hands.

Soon, however, she was back in her old line of work. Again, George Soper set out to track her down in 1912, but this time she escaped his clutches. She enjoyed a period of freedom and, eventually, under a false name, found work as a cook in a maternity hospital.

But as always, when Mary was in the kitchen, people got sick. And as always, her nemesis showed up, after which she was sent back to spend 
the last 23 years of her life in ­quarantine.

A fascinating episode in modern medical history, in which the true hero is surely the indefatigable Soper. Why then tell Mary’s story, and not his?

It’s hard to make a case for any great injustice here. Mary’s quarantine was justified and not uncomfortable. She was given every chance to live in society, if she didn’t cook. She wasn’t a martyr or a victim or a working-class hero, and ­remained wil­­fully blind and criminally irresponsible.

Yet in the tender, detailed portrayal of willed ignorance collapsing in the face of truth, Mary Beth Keane has made of Mary Mallon’s life a fine novel of moral blindness.

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