Mary Mallon got a bad rap in her day, being the 1880s . She became the poster girl for the typhoid virus. Mallon was born on September 23, 1869 in Ireland and immigrated to the United States at the age of 15 to eke out a living as a domestic servant. She had a talent for cooking which allowed her to make a decent living among the upper class of the New York area. In 1900, Mary worked in Mamaroneck, New York where, within two weeks of her employment, residents developed typhoid fever. In 1901 she moved to Manhattan, where members of the family for whom she worked developed fevers and diarrhea (ick), and the laundress died. Oh dear. Everyone must have walked around in dirty socks for a week until they hired a new one. Mary then went to work for a lawyer, until seven of the eight household members developed typhoid. Oddly, Mary wasn’t putting any of this together.
In 1906, she took a position in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and within two weeks ten of eleven family members were hospitalized with typhoid. She changed jobs again (perhaps she was starting to catch on), and similar occurrences happened in three more households.She worked as a cook for the family of a wealthy New York banker, Charles Henry Warren. When the Warrens rented a house in Oyster Bay for the summer of 1906, Mallon came along. From August 27 to September 3, six of the eleven people in the family came down with typhoid fever. The disease at that time was “unusual” in Oyster Bay, according to three medical doctors who practiced there.Mary was subsequently hired by other families, and outbreaks followed her wherever she went. If that isn’t one of those things that make you go hmmmm…
In late 1906, one family hired a typhoid researcher named George Soperto investigate. Soper published the results on June 15, 1907 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. He believed Mary Mallon might be the source of the outbreak. Soper discovered the common element in the outbreaks was an unmarried, heavyset Irish cook, about forty years old. No one knew her whereabouts. After each case she left and gave no forwarding address. Soper traced her to an active outbreak in a Park Avenue penthouse — two servants were hospitalized and the daughter of the family died. When Soper approached Mallon about her possible role in spreading typhoid, she adamantly rejected his request for urine and stool samples. Since Mary refused to give urine and stool samples, he decided to compile a five-year history of Mary’s employment. Soper found that of the eight families that hired Mallon as a cook, seven claimed to have gotten typhoid fever. Oops. On his next visit, he brought another doctor with him but again was turned away. During a later encounter when Mary was herself hospitalized, he told her he would write a book and give her all the royalties. She angrily rejected his proposal and locked herself in the bathroom until he left.
The New York City Health Department finally sent Dr. Sara Josephine Baker to talk to Mary Mallon. Baker stated “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. Mary attracted so much media attention that in a 1908 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association she was called “typhoid Mary“. Later, in a textbook that defined typhoid fever, she was called “Typhoid Mary” with a capital “T”. Mary’s goose was cooked (pun). Under questioning, Mary said she rarely washed her hands when cooking and felt there was no need to do so. That sounds gross but in the late 19th century, it wasn’t unusual. Cultures of Mary’s urine and stools, taken forcibly with the help of prison matrons, (try to erase that image) revealed that her gallbladder was teeming with typhoid salmonella. Ewww. She refused to have her gallbladder extracted or to give up her occupation as a cook, maintaining stubbornly that she did not carry any disease. Not the smartest legal strategy the NYCHD ever witnessed. I mean, all she had to do was toss the gallbladder and she might even have been allowed to keep working as a cook.
The New York City Health Inspector determined her to be a carrier. Under sections 1169 and 1170 of the Greater New York Charter, Mary was held in isolation for three years at a clinic located on North Brother Island. Eventually, Dr. Eugene H. Porter, the New York State Commissioner of Health, decided that disease carriers should no longer be kept in isolation. Mary could be freed if she agreed to stop working as a cook and take reasonable steps to prevent transmitting typhoid to others. On February 19, 1910, Mary 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“. Good girl. That’s more like it. She was released from quarantine and returned to the mainland. Upon her release, Mary was given a job as a laundress, which paid less than cooking. She soon changed her name to Mary Brown, and stupidly returned to her old occupation.
For the next five years, she worked in a number of kitchens; wherever she worked, there were outbreaks of typhoid. However she changed jobs frequently, and Dr. Soper was unable to find her. In 1915, a serious epidemic of typhoid erupted among the staff of New York’s Sloane Hospital for Women, with twenty-five cases and two fatalities. City health authorities investigated and discovered that an Irish-American woman matching Mallon’s description had suddenly disappeared from the kitchen. The police tracked her to an estate on Long Island. Public health authorities arrested Typhoid Mary, returning her to quarantine on North Brother Island on March 27, 1915. She was confined there for the remainder of her life. While incarcerated, Mary penned a heartfelt letter to New York authorities, begging for her release. None was forthcoming. Well, Mary had her chance. I don’t know that she should have been banned to the island until she died but she did kill many people in full knowledge that she carried the typhoid virus in her gallbladder. I mean remove it already. Mallon became a minor celebrity, and was interviewed by journalists, who were forbidden to accept even a glass of water from her. Later, she was allowed to work as a technician in the island’s laboratory, washing bottles.
It was later discovered that there were hundreds of healthy typhoid carriers living in New York but none were quarantined as long as Mary Mallon. A bit of a political prisoner, I should think. Of course nowadays banishing Mary to North Brother Island would violate her human rights. Mary would have probably not been convicted of manslaughter in any of the deaths she caused before the cultures of her feces and urine were taken, if it hadn’t been fully determined that she was a carrier for typhoid. And to simply release her and send her back to New York without training her to take up an occupation that would pay as well as cooking was unfair. Nope, that wouldn’t go over well today. In fact she’d sue the city for defamation of character and trying to harvest her organs when she was still alive. And she’d probably win, too. Anybody hungry?