NOVA’s new film about Mary Mallon, The Most Dangerous Woman in America, is based on the book Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health by Judith Walzer Leavitt, a professor of medical history and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin’s Medical School. Her book has been heralded as “an indelible pleasure of early 20th-century New York, when modern knowledge and sensibilities collided with ancient terrors” (Boston Book Review). Irish America magazine spoke with Ms. Leavitt about her fascinating research subject.
MB: How did you become interested in Mary Mallon?
JWL: I come from an urban history background. While at the University of Chicago, I wrote my dissertation on urban public health, entitled The Healthiest City. When I came to the University of Wisconsin, I taught a class on the history of public health in America, and the Mary Mallon story was one I used to illustrate the public health issues because it worked so well. My students liked the story and I realized that no one had ever written about her.
MB: Why do you suppose Mary was singled out among all the other healthy carriers of typhoid at the time, who were not detained as she was?
JWL: This is a complex question, which I really try to answer in the book. There are many factors involved. One probable reason is that she was the first healthy carrier to be identified in the English-speaking world, and they simply didn’t know what to do with her. Another factor is her deviant status. She was seen as different from the expected societal norm. She was a single woman and an Irish immigrant, which at that time still carried a certain stigma. And she was often living with a man without being married [Mary’s boyfriend, A. Briehof, is a prominent figure in the film. He played a large part in Mary’s life, including assisting her in her legal battles].
Finally, the man who discovered Mary, George Soper, depicted her in his writings as an Amazon and as ugly and being masculine in her walk and in her mind. Even though, to look at photos of her, she appears anything but Amazon-like – she was feminine and rather small. But she was thwarting Soper’s goal, which was to advance his career. Once she was labeled “Typhoid Mary,” she became all of these other things and her appearance became a part of demonizing her. All of these factors, plus Mary Mallon’s refusal to accept Health Department authority and the authority of science, added to the fact that she did in fact endanger the health of those for whom she cooked, contributed to the rather harsh treatment she received.
MB: What is your next project?
JWL: Before writing Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health, I wrote a book about the history of childbirth, called Brought to Bed. I am now working on a sequel to that book, which concentrates on the men’s experience of childbirth, entitled Make Room for Daddy. ♦