Prudence Galewski is a midwife's daughter. What she wants to learn, more than anything that is taught at her girl's school, is about the body and illness. What makes the body work? How does one treat the body when it ails? And ultimately, is it possible to cheat death, which Prudence has seen far too much of in her tenement neighborhood. When she gets an opportunity to work for the New York Department of Sanitation as assistant to an epidemiologist, Prudence's world begins to open. But stepping into this new world means leaving the old one behind. Set in turn-of-the-century New York, Julie Chibbaro puts Prudence in the middle of a typhoid outbreak and the infamous case of Typhoid Mary, an Irish immigrant who was a carrier of the disease, despite showing no symptoms herself.
Though we now have many ways of treating typhoid --- vaccines, antibiotics, and hydration therapies --- this bacterial infection spread through food and fecal matter was once a scourge, particularly for people living in crowded or unsanitary conditions. Typhoid is still with us, though it's much less common in the United States than it was in the past. It is part of the salmonella family, and its symptoms, including fever and gastroenteritis, are similar to food poisoning, eventually leading to intestinal hemorrhage and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) if untreated. Without medical intervention, the disease has a four-week cycle. Fatalities are usually caused by dehydration and organ failure.
What makes the case of Typhoid Mary so important is that it was a breakthrough in germ theory. At the end of the 19th century, science was beginning to establish that microorganisms caused disease. Typhoid Mary was the key to unlocking the conundrum of whether or not healthy people showing no symptoms of disease could carry germs that could still infect others. Though Mary herself was healthy, she was unknowingly the carrier of the typhoid bacterium, which was infecting the families where she worked as a cook. She's known to have infected at least 53 people, three of whom died of the illness.
However, the Typhoid Mary case was also accompanied by controversy. Because she was considered a danger to the public, she was arrested in 1907 and held in quarantine. This caused enormous controversy and a huge court battle in which it was ruled that her civil liberties came second to the risk she posed to the public. Immigration was as much a political issue then as it is now; the class implications of immigrants as carriers of disease also created a public and political furor. Scientists were asked to prove how a healthy person --- with no visible signs of infection --- could possibly be the carrier of invisible, disease-causing microorganisms.
After being held in quarantine for three years, the courts ruled that Mary Mallon could return to society provided she take precautions against the spread of infection and not work as a cook again. In 1915, she was found to be the source of another outbreak of typhoid, infecting 25 people and killing one, while working as a cook at a women's hospital. She was taken back into custody and lived in quarantine for the rest of her life. She died in 1938. An autopsy showed there were still typhoid bacteria in her body at the time of her death.
While taking some liberties in terms of time frame (and the invented character of Prudence), Deadly is an illuminating glimpse into the process of tracking disease to the source of infection. It is also about the wonder Prudence experiences doing work she is truly excited about. "Sometimes I have the most unusual feeling at the office, a forgetting of myself that happens when I am deep into the work of transcribing notes," Prudence says. "I feel as if I am no longer me, but rather part of a larger thing, a giant machine with many components that functions perfectly. A machine of knowledge, one that moves our lives forward in important ways. It's those times when I'm furthering our work that I am happiest."
The intrinsic value Prudence finds in her work is one of the overarching themes of Deadly. Not only is she fighting against prevailing opinion about the causes and spread of disease, she also has to face doubts --- including her own--- about the role of women and her suitability for a job she loves. Julie Chibbaro makes another unusual choice in veering away from the romance that is often a part of historical fiction. While there are hints of romance in the book, ultimately Deadly is about a different kind of passion --- the joy of discovery, the pursuit of knowledge, and love of the work one does.
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