Mary Mallon

    In 1884, fifteen-year-old Mary Mallon immigrated to the United States from Ireland. She grew to become a large, feisty woman known for a wicked temper and an extraordinary talent for cooking. Despite being uneducated, Mary was able to build a successful career as a cook for well-to-do families in New York City.  She was good at her job and remained steadily employed, always considered to be an essential employee. She often traveled with the families when they took trips or vacations. In the late 1800s, America was not the “drive-thru” nation we have now, and a darn good cook was essential luggage.

    In 1906 the family Mary worked for on Long Island became ill with Typhoid.  Mary moved on to a new job with a new family for employment, but soon the same thing happened. Then a third time, and then again.  After a few more moves, the authorities began investigating the homes of the wealthy and unlucky families. After a while, they discovered the one thing they had in common: A large, feisty, celebrated cook by the name of Mary.

    Mary must have been thinking of herself as the luckiest woman in New York, as she repeatedly evaded the illness that was ravaging those around her. It was 1907 when the Board of Health located her. In short order, Ms. Mallon was quarantined at the Riverside Hospital on North Borther Island. 

    In all fairness to Mary, this was a time when science was beginning to study and understand the transference of disease. Many new concepts of diseases sounded outrageous to the public, and most people didn’t relate to some of the discoveries coming forward.  Common knowledge of the day indicated that someone who did not have a disease could certainly not spread it.  In Mary’s mind, these outbreaks were pure coincidence. Remember, hand washing and other sanitation practices weren’t commonly practiced. The sanitizing wipe would not be invented for over eighty years. 

    In 1910 the health commissioner agreed with new scientific information suggesting that Mary could indeed be a typhoid carrier who was spreading the disease as she prepared food. He determined that her three-year imprisonment in the asylum was an unfair treatment to someone who was not an actual criminal.

    As a step toward rehabilitation, the commissioner found Mary a job in a laundry, and she was released back into the wild.  He was sure that she was a reasonable soul and had learned the nature of her condition. The commissioner was sure she would do the right thing and never work in food preparation again.

As it turned out, the laundry job barely produced enough income to sustain her, and her job satisfaction resided in her talent in the kitchen. Mary went to work in food preparation not long after her release but somehow forgot to tell the board of health about it. She may have accidentally started changing her name and moving around from kitchen to kitchen for a while.  In 1915, Mary was discovered to be cooking at the Sloane Hospital for Women in Manhattan.  The authorities were puzzled that she would continue to cook for others, knowing the danger she posed.  Mary could not (would not) understand how she could have Typhoid. She had neither been sick nor shown any symptoms herself.  She was quick to anger at the implication that she caused the outbreaks of such a deadly disease, and when Mary was mad -everyone paid heed.

    In hindsight, we now know that Mary Mallon was the first known asymptomatic carrier of Typhoid.  It seems like an easy concept now, but at the time, it was not so.  Because scientific research in the early 1900s was not nearly as advanced as it is today. Learning of Mary’s strong personality, we believe that Mary wasn’t bad, just badly mistaken.

    Historically, she most certainly was not the Grim Reaper cutting thru the population, killing thousands with her evil Typhoid finger.  But since she was so unlikable, the press labeled her “Typhoid Mary,” encouraging public outrage to blame her for much more than her fair share.  The truth goes more like this: Mary Mallon was just one of 50 known asymptomatic carriers of Typhoid.  The fact that the Board of Health’s manhunt to find her caught the attention of the press and the label Typhoid Mary caught on.  It did not help that when she was arrested, Mary went ballistic, kicking and screaming as they took her away. Even then, a lurid news story gathered attention and flooded through the public. Since she worked for the upper classes added to her notoriety.  The actual numbers were that she infected 30-50 people, but only three died.   During that same year, there were more than 3,000 other cases of Typhoid in New York and over 600 deaths.  

    Typhoid Mary Mallon was imprisoned at North Borther Island a second time. This is where she lived out the final 23 years of her life.  As a celebrity she still had journalist visit her, but they were reminded not to accept even a glass of water from her.  In 1938 she died of complications from a stroke that she had several years earlier. Mary Mallon was 69 years old, the autopsy indicated that her gall bladder was still shedding typhoid bacilli.

The moral of the story? Wash your hands and stay in school (even if it is virtual) , and wear your mask no matter what.