STEM Tuesday–Checking Your Health– Interview with Author Gail Jarrow

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’re interviewing Gail Jarrow about her Deadly Diseases Trilogy: Red Madness, Fatal Fever, and Bubonic Panic. Both Red Madness and Bubonic Panic are among this month’s featured health and medicine books. Gail is an author of nonfiction books for ages 8-18 about science and history (and the history of science). Her books have received many honors, including the YALSA Award Nomination for Excellence in Nonfiction, a Notable Social Studies Trade Book, Outstanding Science Trade Book, a NSTA Best STEM book, the Jefferson Cup Award, the Eureka! Gold Award, an Orbis Pictus Recommendation, as well as Kirkus Reviews and School Library Journal Best Books and VOYA Honor Book distinctions.


Mary Kay Carson: How did these books come about?

Gail Jarrow: It all started with a chance discovery in the Cornell University library stacks.  While researching scurvy for a magazine article, I spotted a shelved book on pellagra written by a Cornell professor I had met. Even though the book wasn’t about my topic, I took it home to read because I knew her. I was fascinated by this forgotten nutritional deficiency disease that had once affected millions of Americans, and I sensed it would make an interesting story for young readers. But pellagra turned out to be one of those ideas you file away until you can figure out how to approach the subject. I didn’t figure it out for a dozen years. After online databases made it easier to access old medical journals and hundreds of newspapers from the early twentieth century, I saw a way to write Red Madness as a medical mystery using the experiences of doctors and pellagra victims. As part of my pellagra research, I used U.S. Public Health Service reports from the early 1900s.  I came across many entries about typhoid fever and plague, two other epidemic diseases that the Public Health Service was trying to control then. That was how Fatal Fever and Bubonic Panic were born from Red Madness, completing the Deadly Diseases trilogy. It goes to show that new ideas can be hiding anywhere and it pays to be receptive to them.

MKC: I have to ask, which of three deadly diseases—plague, typhoid, or pellagra—would you least like to suffer from? 

Gail: These diseases all have nasty symptoms. But without question, I would NOT want to contract plague. It is the deadliest of the three. We have effective antibiotics for plague today, but the survival rate is decent only if you’re diagnosed early on. If you have pneumonic plague, your chances diminish drastically. Antibiotics work against typhoid, though scientists are seeing more antibiotic resistance. Yet even before we had those drugs, the majority of typhoid victims recovered. Pellagra is easily treated with diet change or niacin supplements.

MKC: These books were quite a journey through primary sources. Do you have a favorite finding?

Gail: Of all the intriguing information I uncovered, my favorite had to do with typhoid fever. I discovered that the epidemiologist who tracked down Typhoid Mary had—four years earlier—helped end a typhoid outbreak in Ithaca, New York, where I live. He determined that the likely source of that outbreak was a creek not far  from my house. Finding connections to your own life makes history and science come alive. When I write for young readers, I look for ways to connect the book’s content to their lives. For example, in Fatal Fever, I included specific details about the physical effects of typhoid on college students in Ithaca, some of whom died during the 1903 epidemic. I found these case studies among infirmary records and other local archival material. Because the victims were teens, I hoped this would help my readers relate to a disease they probably knew nothing about.

MKC: Any further reading recommendations for fans of the Deadly Diseases Trilogy?

Gail: To add a few to the STEM Tuesday Checking Your Health list: Suzanne Jurmain’s Secret of the Yellow Death deals with medical sleuthing. John Fleischman’s Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science would grab young readers. I really enjoyed Poison by Sarah Albee and How They Croaked by Georgia Bragg, two books that use humor to explore medical topics.

Want to know more about Gail Jarrow and the Deadly Diseases Trilogy?


Win a FREE copy of BUBONIC PANIC: When Plague Invaded America!

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.

Good luck!

Your host this week is Mary Kay Carson, author of Mission to Pluto and other nonfiction books for kids. @marykaycarson


STEM Tuesday
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  1. This book would be a great addition to my science classroom! Students would find this topic so interesting and it ties into our studies. Great work!

  2. All three of these books sound fascinating. I was unaware of the possibility of contracting something like the plague in this day and age but now I know a bit more. Thanks for the chance to win this great looking book!

  3. What a great book, and how it touches so close to home. I’m happy that the epidemic didn’t affect any of your family and that you are here today with this wonderful concept. It is so interesting for kids to really see what happened and what everyone went through to get to where we are today.

  4. I loved the information about primary sources; in particular, finding the case details in infirmary records. Thanks to both Gail Jarrow and Mary Kay Carson for a fascinating post.

  5. Wow- these look super interesting! I’d love to win this for my new library. P.S. I am a Cornell alum : )

    • You’re our randomly chosen winner! Congrats!