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On The Bricks

April 10, 2020

Today, “Typhoid Mary” is a colloquial term for anyone who, knowingly or not, spreads disease or some other undesirable thing.

The real Typhoid Mary was Mary Mallon, born Sept. 23, 1869 in CookstownCounty Tyrone, in what is now Northern Ireland. She migrated to the United States in 1883 or 1884. She lived with her aunt and uncle for a time and found work as a cook for affluent families. She is believed to have infected 51 people, three of whom died, with typhoid fever, and is the first person in the United States identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the disease.

An asymptomatic carrier is a person or other organism that has become infected with a pathogen, but that displays no signs or symptoms. Although unaffected by the pathogen, carriers can transmit it to others or develop symptoms in later stages of the disease.

Because Mary persisted in working as a cook, by which she exposed others to the disease, she was twice forcibly isolated by authorities, and died after a total of nearly three decades in isolation.

From 1900 to 1907, Mallon worked as a cook in the New York City area for seven families. In 1900, she worked in Mamaroneck, New York, where, within two weeks of her employment, residents developed typhoid fever. In 1901, she moved to Manhattan, where members of the family for whom she worked developed fevers and diarrhea, and the laundress died. Mallon then went to work for a lawyer and left after seven of the eight people in that household became ill.

In August 1906, Mallon took a position in Oyster Bay, Long Island, and within two weeks 10 of the 11 family members were hospitalized with typhoid.] She changed jobs again, and similar occurrences happened in three more households. She worked as a cook for the family of a wealthy New York banker, Charles Henry Warren. When the Warrens rented a house in Oyster Bay for the summer of 1906, Mallon went along. From August 27 to September 3, six of the 11 people in the family came down with typhoid fever. The disease at that time was “unusual” in Oyster Bay, according to three medical doctors who practiced there. Mallon was subsequently hired by other families, and outbreaks followed her.

In late 1906, one family hired a typhoid researcher named George Soper to investigate. Soper published the results on June 15, 1907, in the Journal of the American Medical Association. He believed Mallon might have been the source of the outbreak. 

Soper discovered that a female Irish cook, who fit the physical description he was given, was involved in all the outbreaks. He was unable to locate her because she generally left after an outbreak began, without giving a forwarding address. Soper learned of an active outbreak in a penthouse on Park Avenue and discovered Mallon was the cook. Two of the household’s servants were hospitalized, and the daughter of the family died of typhoid.

When Soper approached Mallon about her possible role in spreading typhoid, she adamantly rejected his request for urine and stool samples. Since Mallon refused to give samples, he decided to compile a five – year history of Mallon’s employment. Soper found that of the eight families that hired Mallon as a cook, members of seven claimed to have contracted typhoid fever. On his next visit, he took another doctor with him but again was turned away. During a later encounter when Mallon was herself hospitalized, he told her he would write a book and give her all the royalties. She angrily rejected his proposal and locked herself in the bathroom until he left.

The New York City Health Inspector determined Mary was a carrier and she was held in isolation for three years at a clinic located on North Brother Island.

In prison, she was forced to give stool and urine samples. Authorities suggested removing her gallbladder because they believed typhoid bacteria resided there. However, she refused as she did not believe she carried the disease. She was also unwilling to cease working as a cook.

Mallon attracted so much media attention that she was called “Typhoid Mary” in a 1908 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Eventually, Eugene H. Porter, the New York State Commissioner of Health, decided that disease carriers should no longer be kept in isolation and that Mallon could be freed if she agreed to stop working as a cook and take reasonable steps to prevent transmitting typhoid to others. On February 19, 1910, Mallon agreed that she was “prepared to change her occupation (that of a cook), and would give assurance by affidavit that she would upon her release take such hygienic precautions as would protect those with whom she came in contact, from infection.” She was released from quarantine and returned to the mainland.

Upon her release, Mallon was given a job as a laundress, which paid less than cooking. After several unsuccessful years of working as a laundress, she changed her name to Mary Brown and returned to her former occupation. For the next five years, she worked in a number of kitchens; wherever she worked, there were outbreaks of typhoid. However, she changed jobs frequently, and Soper was unable to find her.

In 1915, Mallon started another major outbreak, this time at Sloane Hospital for Women in New York City. Twenty-five people were infected, and two died. She again left, but the police found and arrested her. Health authorities returned her to quarantine on North Brother Island on March 27, 1915. She was still unwilling to have her gallbladder removed.

Mallon spent the rest of her life in quarantine at the Riverside Hospital. Six years before her death, she was paralyzed by a stroke. On November 11, 1938, she died of pneumonia at age 69. A post – mortem found evidence of live typhoid bacteria in her gallbladder

George Soper wrote however, “There was no autopsy”, a claim cited by other researchers to assert a conspiracy to calm public opinion after her death. Mallon’s body was cremated, and her ashes buried at Saint Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx.

Among the infections Mallon caused, at least three deaths were attributed to her; however, because of her use of aliases and refusal to cooperate, the exact number is not known. Some have estimated that she may have caused 50 fatalities.

Other healthy typhoid carriers identified in the first quarter of the 20th century include Tony Labella, an Italian immigrant, presumed to have caused over 100 cases (with five deaths); an Adirondack guide dubbed “Typhoid John”, presumed to have infected 36 people (with two deaths); and Alphonse Cotils, a restaurateur and bakery owner.

          Good advice: “’I’m bored’ is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to say ‘I’m bored’.” ~ American Comedian Louis C.K.

          See you on the bricks soon.

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