Political Education

“Typhoid Mary”- an Asymptomatic Carrier

In 1907, New York City experienced a typhoid outbreak that may have been caused by an asymptomatic carrier known by the moniker “Typhoid Mary”.

Typhoid fever is a life-threatening illness. If an individual consumes contaminated foods or drinks with salmonella typhi or salmonella paratyphi, the bacteria can multiply and spread into the bloodstream, causing typhoid fever or paratyphoid fever. Severe cases may lead to death.

Mary Mallon, aka “Typhoid Mary,” was born in 1869 in Ireland. She came to the US as a teenager in 1884. Mallon found employment as a cook for wealthy families. Mallon’s signature dish was her homemade peach ice cream, significant because typhoid bacterium lives in cold food but is destroyed by cooking. In 1907 some 3,000 New Yorkers were infected with salmonella typhi. The family of one of the typhoid victims hired researcher George Soper to investigate the situation.

Soper discovered that the same cook had served with eight families. Seven of the families developed cases of typhoid. Twenty-two individuals had signs of typhoid infection. Some of those died. The cook was Mary Mallon. Soper’s first meeting with Mallon did not go well; she chased him out of her kitchen with a carving fork. Soper and the N.Y. Department of Health had the police bring Mary Mallon in for testing. The outraged Mallon ran from the police for five hours. Finally, she was caught and forced to give samples. Mallon’s sample came back positive for salmonella typhi.

George Soper became the first investigator to explain that a healthy carrier who had no symptoms could be a carrier of salmonella typhi. Mallon was sent from Riverside Hospital to be quarantined in a cottage on North Brother Island.

While Mary Mallon was held in confinement, she took legal action citing unjust treatment because she was healthy and had done nothing wrong. She was released in 1910 after promising not to work as a cook again. After working a laundry job, Mallon returned to cooking under assumed names. One of those cooking jobs was at Manhattan’s Sloane Maternity Hospital where she contaminated 25 doctors, nurses, and staff members.

Mary Mallon was returned to isolation confinement on North Brother Island for the next 23 years where she died in 1938. By that time, the New York health department had identified more than 400 other healthy carriers of the illness. “Typhoid Mary’s” denial of her status as an asymptomatic carrier echoes the current COVID-19 pandemic response.

There are those who deny science and simply will not employ mitigation efforts during this crisis. The failure to undertake mitigation efforts in a pandemic leads to- literally- an unmitigated disaster. How do we respect the civil rights of non-believers while limiting their impact on society? Science has advanced over the last hundred years. Society’s lack of advancement can be measured by the unnecessarily high infection numbers and death rate.


Thanks and a tip of the hat to Wikimedia Commons for the image.

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