Welcome to STEM Tuesday: Author Interview & Book Giveaway, a repeating feature for the fourth Tuesday of every month. Go Science-Tech-Engineering-Math!
Today we’ve the pleasure of revisiting Gail Jarrow, author of the highly acclaimed Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary. Although this is a historical medical thriller its exploration of the opportunities and ethics of public health resonate in today’s COVID-19 reality.
Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano: Thank you for joining STEM Tuesday again. I hope you are doing well during this pandemic. Fatal Fever takes readers to a time when typhoid fever outbreaks were not uncommon in the U.S. and elsewhere. What would you say the book is primarily about?
Gail Jarrow: The book is part of my Deadly Diseases trilogy, which focuses on early-20th-century medicine. I consider that period a turning point. After the acceptance of germ theory, scientists and physicians were looking for ways to prevent, treat, and cure diseases. I wrote Fatal Fever to explain how typhoid fever was tackled, and I chose Mary Mallon, aka Typhoid Mary, as a way to tell the story.
CCD: The opening scene, in which Mary Mallon seeks to escape from health officials and the police, is full of suspense. It’s a gripping beginning and it flows smoothly to the rest of the book’s structure. It makes me wonder how the book’s narrative arc took shape in your mind. Can you fill us on in some of that process?
GJ: I think it helps readers to understand unfamiliar information, such as a disease, when I approach the subject through personal stories. Because Mary Mallon was an asymptomatic typhoid carrier, I couldn’t show the disease’s horrible toll by only telling her story. I found another way. I discovered that George Soper (the sanitary engineer who tracked her down) had helped to clean up a typhoid epidemic in my hometown of Ithaca, New York, in 1903. Early in my book, I use details about that episode to introduce readers to the biology of the disease, the ways it devastated the bodies of individual Ithacans, and the fact that there was no cure or treatment. When Soper starts his search for Mary Mallon in New York City just three years later, the reader understands why he believes it is critically important to find her before she can sicken and kill others.
CCD: This book brings in various disciplines and topics –history, human rights and civics, and public health and the biology of disease all come into play. Yet it’s a tight story. Did you ever struggle with drafts that were too complex or too rambling a book for your readers?
GJ: My biggest hurdle is the jump from researching to writing. I’ve read thousands of pages of historical background, past and present scientific literature, and primary documents. From all that, I have to figure out the most engaging, accessible, and accurate way to present this knowledge in abbreviated form. One thing that often helps is to remember my days teaching middle-school science. If I were conveying this information to my students, how would I do it? As I write, I keep an eye on vocabulary as well as sentence, paragraph, and chapter length. I read everything aloud so that I hear how it sounds. I’m not afraid to slash my prose. When I hand my manuscript to my longtime editor, Carolyn Yoder, I always ask her to look for spots that drag or confuse.
CCD: How did you decide which scientific information to include and what to leave out?
GJ: I consider how much science background my typical readers probably have. Do they know enough that I can build on that foundation to explain new information? I’m careful not to simplify so much that I make incorrect statements. Sometimes, after reading many scientific papers and talking to experts, I realize that parts of the science aren’t settled. Depending on the topic, I might explain the debate. But if it’s too technical and in the weeds for my audience, I might not include that aspect. I ran into a different problem with my book about plague, Bubonic Panic. I came across a recent controversial hypothesis about the history of plague. Though intriguing, it was based on very weak evidence. If the evidence had been stronger, I might have mentioned the idea. But I decided it would be irresponsible to perpetuate what might turn out to be speculative balderdash.
CCD: I have experienced similar decisions in my own writing. Deciding which new ideas to include can be a tough call! Moving on…Obviously, as a book that features a dangerous infectious disease, there are parallels to our current COVID-19 pandemic. Which Fatal Fever themes and issues resonate most strongly for you as the world faces and attempts to cope with COVID-19?
GJ: In my Author’s Note to Fatal Fever, which I wrote several years ago, I raised the issues that arise when a deadly, highly contagious, and untreatable disease strikes. I was thinking about typhoid fever in 1900 and the plight of Mary Mallon when quarantines and contact tracing were part of the story. But what I wrote then applies to any epidemic: What do we expect health authorities to do? What government actions would or should we tolerate? Does protecting a city/state/country override the rights and freedoms of an individual? You can’t get any more relevant to COVID than that!
The numerous historical images and documents in FATAL FEVER, such as this cartoon (Page 115), help to bring readers back to the early 20th century and better understand the tale and its context.
CCD: In Fatal Fever, you point out that science understanding that asymptomatic individuals can spread typhoid fever was new at the time when Mary Mallon was identified as a carrier. Today, we are facing a new disease, and information about its transmission has developed and evolved over the months. I wonder if you see anything in the story of Mary Mallon and her intersection with disease, transmission, and public health that might be of use in our individual and collective responses to COVID-19?
GJ: I personally learned several lessons from Mary’s case and typhoid outbreaks. People whose job it was to worry about public health (officials, medical personnel) had one agenda. People who had to make a living to support themselves and their families (Mary, other typhoid carriers) had a different agenda. The goals and needs of these groups ended up in conflict. Compromises had to be found. They have to be found today, too.
An early 21st-century public health slide about how COVID-19 spreads. Note that as of this posting, WHO and the US Centers for disease control acknowledge that asymptomatic individuals can also spread the coronavirus. (Source: World Health Organization)
Another lesson is a hopeful one. The diseases I’ve studied from 100 years ago have been controlled and, in some cases, conquered. We have witnessed amazing discoveries in COVID treatments and vaccines in nine or ten months. It took years, even decades, to make that progress with earlier diseases. Our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents suffered through much worse times—disease-wise—than today, and they coped and survived. History gives us perspective.
CCD: I appreciate that hopeful, historical angle! As you explain in a short video on your website, you write about history. Yet science themes come into your books. What thoughts do you have about how these historical stories might impact readers’ relationship to science?
GJ: First, as I mentioned above, I think personal stories make scientific topics more relatable.
Second, the history of science shows that understanding and “theories” change as we gain more information. In the past, scientists and physicians fervently believed in ideas that we now know were absolutely wrong, and the scientific/medical establishment criticized and ridiculed anyone who challenged those ideas. Two examples of 19th-century mavericks who are relevant today as we deal with antiseptics and handwashing: Lister and Semmelweis. Scientific views change. Careful observation and proof from unbiased tests are essential.
CCD: Stepping away from history—what’s new for you as an author, and what we can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
Gail Jarrow continues to write about the intersection of history and medicine. BLOOD AND GERMS is her most recent book.
GJ: In keeping with my interest in history and the evolution of medicine, this fall I launched my Medical Fiascoes series with Boyds Mills & Kane. The first book, BLOOD AND GERMS: The Civil War Battle Against Wounds and Disease, came out last month. The second book, AMBUSHED!: The Assassination Plot Against President Garfield, will be published next fall, and it explores the way medical ignorance led to his death. I’m currently in the midst of research for the third book in the series.
CCD: This is exciting! I’m sure we all look forward to exploring more medical history with you as our thoughtful, informative guide, Gail. I want to thank you for your wonderful writing and for this interview. Stay well.
Win a FREE copy of FATAL FEVER: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary!
Enter the giveaway by leaving a comment below. The randomly-chosen winner will be contacted via email and asked to provide a mailing address (within the U.S. only) to receive the book.
Your host is Carolyn Cinami DeCristofano, founding STEM Tuesday contributor, STEM Education Consultant, and author of STEM books for kids. Her books include A Black Hole is NOT a Hole, Running on Sunshine: How Does Solar Energy Work?, and National Geographic Kids Ultimate Space Atlas.
Gail Jarrow is the author of nonfiction books and novels for ages 8-18. Her nonfiction books have earned numerous awards.