Review of American Murderer, by Gail Jarrow

American Murderer

The Parasite That Haunted the South

by Gail Jarrow

Calkins Creek, 2022. 159 pages.
Review written January 15, 2023, from a library book
Starred Review
2023 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist
2022 Cybils Award Finalist, High School Nonfiction

I’m squeamish, so I didn’t expect to enjoy this book from the “Medical Fiascoes Series” as much as I did. But Gail Jarrow, a past winner of the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award, makes the story of this medical mystery fascinating.

It’s all about a parasite. Scientists in Europe discovered that hookworms were making people sick in the late 1800s. But in 1902, a scientist named Charles Wardell Stiles discovered a distinct type of hookworm in America. He named it Necator americanus, which means “American murderer.”

But after discovering the new parasite came the dawning realization that more than 40% of rural southern families were infected with it, up to 2 or 3 million people.

Afflicted people complained of diarrhea and a bloated abdomen. Their skin was paler than normal. Children were physically underdeveloped. Adults didn’t have enough endurance to perform even minor work, and they were usually poor because they couldn’t earn a living. Some people had experienced these symptoms for years, and family members had died with the same ailments. None of them knew why they’d been plagued for generations. They just accepted it.

The rest of the community considered these people sluggish and lazy. Because pica was a common symptom, the infected were often mocked as “dirt-eaters.” No one understood that the symptoms were not a sign of weak character or low mental ability. They were evidence of a tiny worm — actually hundreds of worms — slowly sucking blood from a victim’s small intestine.

Living during the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s easy to understand why most of this book is about convincing people — and doctors — that hookworm was real and convincing them to get treatment. Scientists also worked to get them to change things about their everyday lives. The worm gets into people through skin — mostly when people walk with bare feet on infected ground soiled with infected human feces.

So besides getting people to get tested and treated, there was also a campaign for sanitary privies. But those were expensive, as were shoes for growing children.

But the whole story of fighting the bug is an amazing success story with millions of lives saved and improved. I especially liked the many photos of infected people before and after treatment. The last chapter covers ways parasites still endanger people today, yes, even in America.

Overall, this is an abundance of clear information about a major public health problem from a hundred years ago that I previously knew absolutely nothing about. Almost every spread has photos or side bars, and the story is riveting as Gail Jarrow tells it. An amazing achievement.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but the views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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