In an age where viruses like ebola threaten public health, the story of Typhoid Mary couldn't be more timely.
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 Mallon 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.
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.
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.
Typhoid Mary lost her case against the health department, yet she was eventually released from forced quarantine a couple years later, upon the condition that she give up her occupation as a cook. Still believing that she was no carrier of the dangerous illness, Mary eventually went back to work as a cook, infecting more people and forcing the state to once again quarantine her at North Brother Island.
Typhoid Mary spent the rest of her life—over twenty years total—at the Riverside Hospital. Unlike other patients, she was given a cottage away from the main building, until she suffered a stroke in 1932 that paralyzed her. Mary was transferred into the institution’s regular quarters, where she would remain until her death in 1938.
In all, it is said that Mary infected about 50 people with typhoid fever and caused three deaths. Yet she wasn’t the deadliest virus carrier: “healthy carrier” Tony Labella exposed 122 people to the disease, with five of those individuals losing their lives. Still, it is the name Typhoid Mary that has stuck for over a century, now representing the very real overlap between public health and a person’s civil liberties.
Check out this short video on her unique story: