By Robert James Taylor
Miss Mary Mallon (1869-1938), an Irish immigrant working as a cook in New York City, in private homes, became the first known asymptomatic carrier of the typhoid fever bacillus in the United States. She herself had recovered from the dreadful disease but had become an infectious carrier; during the years from 1900 to 1907 she had infected more than seven different households. In 1906 there were 3000 cases of typhoid fever in New York State, including 600 fatalities. Typhoid fever, a disease caused by Salmonella Typhi, a strictly human pathogen, multiplies in the intestine and is excreted in feces. Contamination is carried to others through compromised fecal matter coming into contact with uncooked food.
Mary Mallon, ill-educated and headstrong, was unaware of the danger she brought on families, yet, strangely, she would always leave the employ of the families infected within days of the manifestation. In the summer of 1907 she was working for a wealthy family in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and, days after a dinner party, all the guests became feverishly ill. Sanitary engineer, Dr. George Soper, a specialist in tracing typhoid epidemics, was hired and by the time he arrived, Mary had left. Through extensive investigations Soper suspected the origin of the contagion was likely from the cook.
He was able to trace Mary’s employment history and discovered that all the families she worked for had been infected: it was imperative she be found. Several months later Soper was summoned to a Park Avenue house where typhoid had taken the life of a child. In the kitchen was Mary Mallon. Dr. Soper informed her of her carrier status yet Mary was hostile, uncooperative and refused to submit to a medical examination- again she fled.
In 1907 the New York Dept. of Health, with the assistance of the police, traced her and this time detained her: she was placed in isolation in Willard Parker Hospital, where she was subjected to tests which proved conclusively that she was a carrier of typhoid. The doctors believed the disease existed in Mary’s gall bladder, but Mary refused any form of treatment; she was later transferred and quarantined to a hospital on North Brother Island, isolated in a small cottage. She hired a lawyer and engaged in court battles, to no avail; the press ridiculed her and pronounced her as ‘Typhoid Mary.’ Yet many others were sympathetic, seeing her as a pathetic woman who was denied due process.
After two years a newly appointed Commissioner of Health in New York City agreed to grant her freedom on the grounds that she promised not to work in the handling of any foods: she would have to report to the Health Dept. every 90 days, and sign an affidavit. She remained out of sight, refusing any interviews or photographs, and took on menial domestic work in households with dismal wages. Two years later, she disappeared again- she had changed her name to Mary Brown, and worked in various private and public places, preparing food, for several years.
In 1915 an outbreak of typhoid fever took place inside the Sloane Hospital for women in New York; over twenty nurses were infected, two of whom died. Authorities discovered that Mary had worked in the kitchens just prior to the outbreak before leaving for a position in a private home where she was found. She was arrested and returned to Riverside hospital and put in isolation: she still refused treatment.
It was estimated that Mary Mallon was responsible for the outbreak of over 60 new cases, three of which were fatal. Now regarded as a miscreant she would remain in the hospital permanently but later she was employed as a laboratory technician. Confined to the grounds of the hospital she would spend the next 25 years of her life there: a stroke left her paralysed two years before her death in 1938. Exactly what Mary Mallon knew about her condition and what she still believed will always remain a mystery.
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