2018-07-20 / Front Page

Mary DeRose:

From Lyme disease to accomplished author
By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Mary DeRose, a member the South Portland Planning Board, at the air disaster memorial in Redbank with some of her published work. (Duke Harrington photo)Mary DeRose, a member the South Portland Planning Board, at the air disaster memorial in Redbank with some of her published work. (Duke Harrington photo)SOUTH PORTLAND – There’s more to municipal officials than planning sessions and meeting minutes –they are real people with hopes, dreams and personal hobbies that can escape notice.

One of those officials is South Portland Planning Board member Mary DeRose.

A retired museum curator, DeRose, 67, is the author of several books – writing under her maiden name M. M. Drymon – including a doctoral theses on the development history of the city’s often overlooked west end. She also has written about the history of Lyme disease in New England going back to colonial times, advancing the theory that the Salam Witch Trials have their genesis in the disease.

That her books might track such a wide array of topics might seen odd, but DeRose has a deep and abiding love of history. Plus, her interest in Lyme can be accounted for by the fact that she is herself has had the tick-borne disease.

Q: You are semi-retired now apart from your writing. What did you do as a career?

A: I was the curator of Waterloo Village historic site in Stanhope, New Jersey, and I was historic program director of the Morris County Park Commission, which ran many historic sites.

Q: How did you come to relocate in Maine?

A: My husband Nicholas applied to USM. They have a wonderful program in geography. So, we came up here about 18 years ago for him to finish his degree.

Q: And why did you stay?

A: We were raising our kids and we kind of fell in love with Maine. It was a great place to be.

Q: What led to your 2008 book, “Disguised As the Devil” and later “The Persistent Spiral,” about the history of Lyme disease?

A: When I worked at Waterloo Village, which is an historic farm, I was bitten by a tick. I had not idea what Lyme disease was at the time. I’d never heard of it. I got treatment but I was bitten God knows how many times before one of the ticks was noticed and tested. I ended up flat on my back. I was in a lot of pain and experienced tremendous fatigue. And here I was trying to raise my kids. I had to stop working for a couple of years there. This was right before we moved up here.

Q: How did you get better?

A: I just worked at it. I tried everything. I did courses of antibiotics. I tried various herbal type things. I changed by diet. Over time I began to feel better.

Q: And how did you transition that experience into your books?

A: It was terrible at the worst of it. I couldn’t even read from the brain fog. And, for me, reading is my life. But as I started to feel better, I decided to go back to school, just to try and get my brain working again. Eventually I earned a master’s degree in American and New England Studies and, in 2015, a doctorate in public policy from USM.

Q: What convinced you that the Salem witch trials involved Lyme disease?

A: I think there was a cluster of girls who all got Lyme disease. If you get it and you’re not treated, you can get neurological Lyme. If you read their symptoms, like hallucinations and the sensation of ants crawling under your skin, and you know anything about Lyme disease, they all match. Also, a lot of the women who were accused of being witches hobbled around on canes, which is consistent with the joint pain that come with Lyme.

Q: How did they come down with Lyme?

A: Lyme tends to be prevalent where people are interacting with the first. At that time in colonial history, people were just beginning to clear the forests. The Indians would actually burn great tracts of forest and that may have been in part to control things like ticks. But the early English settlers had the forest right in the back yards and interacted with it on a daily basis for their livelihood. Eventually, as the underbrush was cleared for a farm environment and animals were brought in, as happened in Salem, the disease and the symptoms naturally died off. Today ticks are more prevalent in Maine in part because of climate change that allows them to better survive winters, but also because, with sprawl, we are moving out into the areas where ticks exist.

Q: Your other book traces the history of Lyme disease back even further, including to Otzi, the famous ice man, and the time of the dinosaurs. What was the most interesting thing you discovered?

A: I have a chapter on Catherine of Aragon in which I believe she may have had a tick-borne illness and that may be why she had a hard time producing a child. If you get Lyme, it can cause miscarriages. Of course, no son for Henry VIII led to the split of the church and created a massive fork in world history. Back then, only the elite people were allowed in the forest, of course, because they owned it. For a commoner, it could literally result in death due to an accusation of poaching.

Q: Apart from your own personal experience with Lyme disease, what fuels your love for history?

A: I love puzzles. For example, my doctoral thesis is titled “A Place Called Crockett’s Corner,” and is a history of how politics and public policy influenced the development of the landscape here. When you go around an area, you can see little clues about what used to be. At the end of Westbrook Street by the airport, there used to be a little white picket fence that was stuck there near a tree. It fascinated me that it must have belonged to something at one time, so I started looking into what that something was. That’s where that started.

Q: And what did that fence belong to?

A: It was part of a really important farm that belonged to Samual Waldo. Waldo County is named after him. He bought up a lot of land here and had a farm there.

Q: What were some of the most interesting things you learned in that study?

A: Well, some of the soil under what is now the jetport is actually some of the best soil in Maine. There is a patch there where they grew wheat very early on, back in the 1750s. Maine was actually a tough place to grow wheat at the time, but they were able to do it there and that helped the early settlers get a toehold in the area. The policy to develop the west end for workforce housing in World War II for the shipyards also had a big impact. The population went from about 100 people to more than 4,000 almost over night. Then it was a strong public policy that got is the mall and the industrial development, although the mall never turned out how they expected it to be. They thought they’d get a lot of tax money and everything would be great, but that revenue was offset by a corresponding decrease in state aid. So, it was not the bonanza they hoped to would be. That’s partly why you see so many TIF districts in the city these days, to try and shield some of that development and preserve aid for education.

Q: What to you is the past part of the west end?

A: It’s very diverse. My kids got to grow up with people of different backgrounds. To me that was important. Of course, this area has always been diverse. Also, in terms of public policy, the efforts to being back the Long Creek watershed has been a marvelous cooperative effort that as really done wonders. These days, I can go to sleep to the sound of peepers. When I first moved here, they did not exist at all. So, the area is continuing to develop, especially with affordable housing in mind, but the area is really coming back environmentally, as well.

Return to top