It doesn’t matter where you are in the world. You are surrounded by talks about the coronavirus. As of now, there have been more than 120,000 cases. Who knows how many are walking around without knowing they have the coronavirus. Here in the United States, we have heard of people who have broken quarantine to attend things like a father/daughter dance. In the early 1900s, we had Typhoid Fever that was being passed around by one woman. A few people died by it. Her name? Mary Mallon, also known as Typhoid Mary.
Mary Arrives in the United States
Mary Mallon was born on September 23, 1869 in one of Ireland’s poorest areas. Not much is known about her life there. In 1883 or 1884 (there were discrepancy on which year it actually was), Mary immigrated to the United States when she was only 15. She would go live with her uncle and aunt. She remained in New York City as a domestic servant in several homes as a cook. It would be about 20 years later when Mary became notorious for unassumingly passing Typhoid Fever to people in those households.
We need to talk about what Typhoid Fever is before we start talking about Mary.
Typhoid fever is passed through the contamination of food and drinks. It is a Salmonella typhi bacteria. Symptoms are high fever, stomach pains, headache, diarrhea or constipation, and a rose-colored rash. Nowadays, it is rare for people to get Typhoid fever in developed countries. However, it is still prevalent in underdeveloped ones. During Mary Mallon’s time, typhoid fever was fatal in 10% of the cases and it affected people in larger cities like New York. In 1911, vaccination was developed for salmonella typhi, 1914 it was released to the public. In 1948, antibiotic treatment was available. It was a little too late.
In 1906, Charles Henry Warren, a New York banker, hired Mary as a cook in his home. That summer Charles took his family to Oyster Bay, a beach town in Long Island from August 27th through September 6th. There were 11 people in the house including Mary. Out of the 11 people, six got typhoid fever. After this occurred, George Sober, a sanitary engineer, started investigating as to why the majority of the people in the household got the illness. He noticed that everyone other than Mary got the symptoms. High fever, stomach pains, headache, diarrhea, and a rose-colored rash. Mary? She didn’t. He was the first to find a person who looked healthy who had typhoid fever. Due to his fascination, George Sober started following Mary Mallon everywhere. After going back to the eight families she was the cook for before coming to the Warrens, George figured out that seven out of the eight families had members in the household who got typhoid fever. 22 people and three of them had died. Sober published his findings in JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association, on June 15, 1907.
That same year in 1907, a Typhoid Fever outbreak fever occurred in New York. 3,000 people. NIH believes that the main reason for the outbreak was Mary Mallon.
George Sober finally got support from the New York Department of Health to look for Mary Mallon and get samples from her because he believed she was passing Typhoid Fever around. They finally went to check out his assumption, and with the help of police, brought in Mary Mallon who didn’t want to cooperate. She was forced to give them samples of her bodily fluid. Sober was correct. Mary’s stool tested positive for Salmonella typhi. She was forcibly quarantined in a cottage in North Brother Island. They offered to remove her gallstones, which she refused. This will become important later on in the story of Mary.
Mary was confined for two years. During her periodic testing, 120 out of 163 of her stool samples tested positive. Two years later, in 1909, Mary tried to sue but she didn’t win. A year later, the New York Health Department had a new health commissioner. An agreement was made with Mary that she would be released. She would work as a servant, but never as a cook. She agreed and was released. However, three months later, she was a cook at a maternity ward in Manhattan and 25 people got Typhoid Fever. A few died. How was she able to escape her notoriety? She changed her name to Mary Brown. After that, she was forced back into quarantine in North Brother Island.
In 1932, on Christmas morning, a man found Mary paralyzed on the floor. She had a stroke where she lost the use of her legs. Six years later in November 1938, Mary Mallon passed away. An autopsy was performed and found that the Salmonella typhi bacteria was in her gallstones. However, some people say that was an urban legend and there was never an autopsy performed.
Mary Mallon was not an active female killer like the ones featured in the podcast in the past. However, after she found out she was infecting people with Typhoid Fever, she was to blame for the two people in the maternity ward dying. I do feel sorry for her because she was constantly being talked about, people feared her, and had to have that unfortunate nickname of “Typhoid Mary.” I can’t imagine living that way. I want to think that I would live an isolated life so that I wouldn’t infect people. But, it’s always easier to say these things when you aren’t the one dealing with it.
I do wonder if the autopsy was an urban legend, but I can’t imagine that they wouldn’t have performed one especially with all the fascination of her being a carrier of Salmonella typhi who remained healthy. I have to believe an autopsy was performed.
For those who have been exposed to the coronavirus, stay home. Stop breaking quarantine. I do think that people should be charged for doing so, or at least forcibly quarantined. Please be safe everyone especially for my older listeners and the ones who have health issues.