by Julie Chibbaro

(excellent; top 30% of SciThri)

Year published: 2011
Category: Young adult (YA) LabLit

Tech rating (out of 5):

SUMMARY (from book):

In the early 1900’s, sixteen-year-old Prudence Galewski leaves school to take a job assisting the head epidemiologist at New York’s Department of Health and Sanitation, investigating the intriguing case of “Typhoid Mary,” a seemingly healthy woman who is infecting others with typhoid fever. Includes a historical note by author.


I’m breaking my own rules by giving Deadly a star rating because it’s really not a thriller. But it is a spectacular piece of young adult (YA) LabLit, and it has thriller-like elements (a mystery, a hunt, some moments of danger) that keep the pages turning.

Deadly is a work of historical fiction that dramatizes a very famous true incident in the history of public health and epidemiology. In crowded New York City around 1906, a sensible, intellectual daughter of Jewish immigrants struggles to find her place in a world of poverty and limited opportunities for women. She dreams of doing something meaningful with her life, something related to science and the mystery of death from infection, but her aspirations are limited by her gender and her underprivileged background.

An opportunity comes to her when she gets a job assisting an epidemiologist. The story then puts Prudence (the girl) in the thick of actual historical events surrounding a series of deadly typhoid fever outbreaks that scientists eventually linked to one woman, a cook for wealthy families. Author Chibbaro brings to life the moral and scientific dilemmas in the sad case of “Typhoid Mary”, accurately describing what happened. She creates a compelling context as Prudence wrestles with the transition to adulthood, discovering love, and exploring what may be possible for a girl who is different from other girls. The reader also gets insight into the historical setting of the time.

Deadly is written as a series of diary entries. Fittingly for a YA novel with a teenage girl protagonist, many of the entries are heavy with feelings of confusion and doubt. Prudence emerges from the pages as a remarkable young woman.

Highly recommend this book as an introduction to the history of epidemiology, and the real people who helped us to conquer some of the worst infectious diseases.

Another YA LabLit novel: Double Helix by Nancy Werlin, features a young male protagonist grappling with present-day biomedical issues related to genetic engineering and advanced reproductive technologies.

If you like Deadly, you might enjoy: The Technologists by Matthew Pearl

Key words: typhoid fever, Typhoid Mary, tenement, New York, epidemiology, Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania

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