Typhoid Mary And A History Of Communicable Diseases

Published November 8, 2014
Updated October 7, 2014

The story of Typhoid Mary is particularly interesting in an age where ebola and other serious diseases threaten the lives of many. Quarantined for what she considered to be a faulty diagnosis, Mary was one of the first “healthy carriers” of typhoid fever, an often-fatal communicable illness. Over the past century, Mary’s story has brought up many issues whose impact can still be seen today, especially those regarding civil liberties, public health, and how the government reconciles both. This is the story of Mary Mallon, the woman behind Typhoid Mary.

Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant who first came to the United States as a teenager. To survive, she held a number of domestic jobs, often as a household cook. In 1906, Mary was hired as a cook by Charles Henry Warren and his vacationing family. In early autumn, six of the 11 Warren household members were infected with typhoid fever. To determine how the family caught the disease, Warren hired sanitary engineer George Soper, who had experience with typhoid fever outbreaks.

Political Cartoon on Typhoid

An old cartoon shows that illnesses like typhoid can be prevented. Source: Monster Brains

After tracking down Mary Mallon’s previous work experience—and there, too, people for whom she had cooked had caught the contagious disease—Soper pointed a finger at Mallon, claiming that it was she who had transmitted the disease to so many people. Soper was the first to identify Mary as a “healthy carrier,” meaning that as far as appearances went, she was healthy, but that she carried the disease within her and was therefore a danger to society.

Typhoid fever is caused by the bacterium Salmonella typhi, and is spread through contaminated food or drinks. Since Salmonella typhi is shed from the body through feces, an infected person can then easily transmit the disease if preparing food without being properly decontaminated. Early typhoid fever symptoms are similar to the flu, where infected individuals experience stomach pains, headaches and often a loss of appetite.

Salmonella Typhimurium

An image showing Salmonella typhimurium in an infected mouse gut. Source: ETH Life

As the first “healthy carrier” of the fever, Typhoid Mary claimed that she was never infected. The virus was only confirmed through blood and stool samples collected by government officials. In 1907, the government arrested Typhoid Mary, placing her in a forced quarantine on North Brother Island in the name of public safety. Refusing to believe that she was infected, Mary fought back, suing the health department in 1909. Scientists recently discovered that individuals can carry the salmonella bacteria in immune cells known as macrophages, waiting out the body’s immune response and simultaneously “hacking” the individual’s metabolism.

Riverside Hospital North Brother Island

An image of North Brother Island, where Typhoid Mary was quarantined for much of her life. Source: Digital History Project

Kiri Picone
Bay Area transplant Kiri Picone is a writer and marketer who loves bizarre news and the color purple.
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