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Typhoid Mary is one of those historical figures whom everyone has heard of --- maybe even made jokes about --- without having a clue about her actual identity, let alone her story. These days, we might say we feel like Typhoid Mary when we have a bad cold and risk infecting everyone around us. But, as Julie Chibbaro reveals in her new novel, Typhoid Mary --- the real woman, not the urban legend --- holds an important place in the history of medicine and public health.

It's 1906, and 16-year-old Prudence Galewski is tired of her schooling at Miss Browning's finishing school. She would much rather spend her time helping her mother with the important but often exhausting work of being a midwife or reading one of her father's scientific texts. These books are the only connection she still has to her father, who had been missing from the army for years. Prudence is tired and bored, her mother is tired and sad; clearly it's time for a change.

Prudence is in for more changes than she knows what to do with when she finds a job in New York City's recently formed department of sanitation as an assistant to the chief epidemiologist. She realizes fairly quickly that the job is both more demanding and more important than her clerical training at Miss Browning's prepared her for, but she's up for a challenge, especially when it might mean a chance to see and understand scientific curiosities such as microscopic cells.

Prudence's department is smack in the middle of a bona fide medical mystery: What's causing pockets of typhoid outbreaks on Long Island? Prudence and her boss conduct extensive interviews, track patterns, and soon come up with one common variable: homemade peach ice cream from Mary Mallon, a cook who has worked for all the infected families. But how can Mary be spreading the potentially deadly disease when she's never had it herself? And how can the scientists convince Mary to allow them to test her blood? As Prudence becomes more and more involved in the case, she becomes increasingly uneasy about the ethics of quarantining Mary even as she becomes more and more excited about the possibility of her own future in medicine.

The history of women's medical education and practice is one of the real-world concerns of DEADLY, as is sensationalistic journalism, the attitude of Americans toward large numbers of immigrants in the early 20th century, and the history of public health research in this country. The book is far more than a dry historical tome, however; Prudence's individual concerns about her father's fate, her mother's happiness, and her own future prospects for personal and career fulfillment are both genuine and universal. Although Prudence's romantic infatuation might be less than compelling, its impetus is natural enough, as is Prudence's friendship with a female doctor who is both inspiring and imposing.

DEADLY is an enlightening and well-researched coming-of-age story that will lead readers to consider history and historical characters with renewed thoughtfulness and understanding.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 18, 2011

by Julie Chibbaro