Sally: What inspired you to write about Typhoid fever?
Gail: When I was researching Red Madness (about Pellagra), I read a lot of public health bulletins. I kept seeing mentions of typhoid fever - which was happening at the same time. I'd heard about Typhoid Mary, but didn't know much about her, so I decided to investigate. Then, as I began doing the research I discovered links between the people tracking down Mary and my town of Ithaca, NY, which also suffered an outbreak of typhoid fever. Learning about the people - Mary and the scientists tracking her - gave me a connection to this story.
Sally: This book is packed with information. Talk about your research.
Gail: Because residents in Ithaca - and students at Cornell University - contracted typhoid fever, I found a lot of interesting information in Cornell's rare manuscript collection. There were some student scrapbooks from 1903 filled with news articles, and letters. Then, when I looked at George Soper's book (Soper was a sanitary engineer) I noticed that there were photos of the village just a couple miles from my house. I didn't visit the island that Mary was confined to - it's closed to the public - but I could gain a lot of information from photos. When you go back to those places (in aerial photos), they don't look like they did 100 years ago.
Sally: Mary was quarantined for the remainder of her life. Can you talk about individual rights within the context of a community's right to protect the health of its citizens?
Gail: These issues have not gone away, especially when you have no cure for a disease that can kill so many people. We got a sense of this with Ebola. If people get Ebola, they can die. So the question is: do you isolate people who are sick? And do you quarantine people who have been exposed? Back during the typhoid epidemic people were just beginning to understand that some people could be carriers of a disease but not show symptoms. The medical community erred on the side of caution. Today, we have a rise in tuberculosis, with antibiotic-resistant strains. So we're facing similar questions: do you want someone serving food or working with you who could pass on tuberculosis?
Mary was isolated because she refused to comply with medical directives and kept cooking and serving food. Today, state and federal governments have the authority to isolate people with tuberculosis who refuse to take their medications.
Sally: This is your second book on disease. What's next?
Gail: I'm working on my last book in what I call my "deadly diseases" trilogy. It's about bubonic plague. Interestingly, all three books take place at the turn of the century - in the very first years of 1900 - right after they discovered germ theory but hadn't yet discovered antibiotics.
Sally: Thank you for sharing your insights with us. You can check out Gail's website here.
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Today we're joining the roundup over at the Nonfiction Monday blog where you'll find even more book reviews. It's also Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and we're hanging out with other MMGM bloggers over at Shannon Messenger's blog. Hop over to see what other people are reading.