Typhoid Mary – Societal Scapegoat

Typhoid Mary, Mary Mallon (September 23, 1869 – November 11, 1938), was the first asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever in the U.S. She was infected some 53 people, three of whom died.She was by public health authorities and died after three decades in isolation. In 1900, she had been working in a house in Mamaroneck, New York, for two weeks when the residents developed typhoid fever. She moved to Manhattan in 1901, and members of the family for whom she worked developed fevers and diarrhea. She went to work for a lawyer until seven of the eight household members developed typhoid; Mary spent months helping to care for the people she made sick, but her care further spread the disease through the household.  When typhoid researcher George Soper approached Mallon about her possible role spreading typhoid, she rejected his request for urine and stool samples. Mallon’s denials that she was a carrier were based in part on the diagnosis of a reputable chemist who had found her to not harbor the bacteria.  Further, prejudice towards the Irish were strong. The New York City Health Department sent Dr. Sara Josephine Baker to talk to Mary, but “by that time she was convinced that the law was only persecuting her when she had done nothing wrong.” A few days later, Baker arrived at Mary’s workplace with several police officers who took her into custody. The New York City health inspector determined her to be a carrier. Mallon was isolated for three years at a clinic located on North Brother Island.

It is believed that individuals can develop typhoid fever after ingesting food or water contaminated during handling by a carrier. The human carrier is a healthy person who has survived a previous episode of typhoid fever yet who continues to shed the associated bacteria in feces and urine. The New York State Commissioner of Health decided that disease carriers would no longer be held in isolation. Mallon could be freed if she agreed to abandon working as a cook and to take reasonable steps to prevent transmitting typhoid to others. On February 19, 1910, Mallon agreed that she “[was] prepared to change her occupation (that of a cook), and would give assurance by affidavit that she would upon her release take such hygienic precautions as would protect those with whom she came in contact, from infection”. She was released from quarantine. After a low-paying job as a laundress Mallon adopted the pseudonym Mary Brown, returned to her previous occupation as a cook, and in 1915 was believed to have infected 25 people, resulting in one death. Public-health authorities arrested Mallon, returned to quarantine on the island on March 27, 1915. Mallon was confined there for the remainder of her life.  She was allowed to work as a technician in the island’s laboratory. Six years before her death, she suffered a stroke. On November 11, 1938, aged 69, she died of pneumonia. An autopsy found evidence of live typhoid bacteria in her gallbladder. It is possible that she was born with the infection, as her mother had typhoid fever during her pregnancy.Her body was cremated, and the ashes were buried at Saint Raymond’s Cemetery. Watch typhoid fever

Mary Mallon did not choose to kill 3 people and injure 53 others. She did not believe she was an asymptomatic carrier; such a thing was unheard of then. She could not continue her work as a laundress; the money was so poor she could barely afford food. Isolating her with a small medical staff on an island for thirty years was not meant to keep the public safe. Rather it was meant to appease the public, especially during election years.

Many people had typhoid during this era: a vaccine was non-existent as was a typhoid-specific antibiotic. The main reason for the spread of typhoid was non-hygienic transference.  Primarily typhoid is spread through feces.  After using the washroom people needed to wash their hands thoroughly, however this information was not originally known.  After it was discovered there was little public education about personal hygiene and sanitation for some time. Many people, like Mary, were asymptomatic carriers and many died from typhus. The majority of people who contracted typhoid fever however survived. Isolating Mary for the remainder of her life was an unduly harsh sentence. She was considered to be responsible for an epidemic (53 sick; 3 dead; hardly an epidemic). After the application of public sanitation, the incidence of typhoid and typhus dropped radically.

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