Mary Mallon was a hardworking Irish immigrant in early 1900s New York City. She was strong, determined, and a good cook with both an extraordinary cussing vocabulary and a high concentration of Salmonella typhi in her digestive tract. Because of the latter, which she refused to accept and couldn’t, or wouldn’t, control the spread of, she was imprisoned for the latter portion of her life.
Mary was born on September 23, 1869, in Cookstown, County Tyrone, Ireland. Not much is known about her life until she began to work as a cook in the late 1890s in New York City. The only reason we know about that is because she cooked for the Warren family in Oyster Bay, New York in 1906, and six members of the household contracted typhoid. A private investigation into the source led to the discovery of Mary who was a healthy, permanent carrier of the disease.
A legal battle led to a two-year stay at a quarantine hospital on North Brother Island in New York’s East River; poor decisions led to an additional 23-year stay until the end of Mary’s life on November 11, 1938. In between was a lot of science, a lot of legalities, a bunch of ethical questions, and a very powerful Board of Health.
Mary wasn’t “Typhoid Mary, Evil Illness Dispensary,” she wasn’t even the only person in America who was a healthy carrier of typhoid fever…she was just the only one imprisoned for it. Not to say she was entirely innocent of the transmission of the disease, she did cause people to become sick and die, but no story only has one side and we cover all that in the episode.
There are a lot of parallels to our current world-wide, modern-day pandemic….and a lot of things that we can learn from Mary’s story beginning with wash your darn hands and ending with this: typhoid was a major, world-wide health issue 100 years ago, now we have a cure, know how to contain it, know how to prevent it. While it still exists, it’s no longer an illness most people in the US and many countries have to worry about. We hope that, long before 100 years from now, COVID-19 is the same.
Wash your hands. Stay safe, our friends!
Time Travel with The History Chicks
What the World Health Organization has to say about typhoid these days.
Doctor Who S8, E10: In the Forest of the Night. That’s the episode Susan couldn’t remember the title of.
PBS’ Nova on Mary Mallon there are A LOT of rabbit holes to tumble down.
Hell yeah, there’s a Drunk History! It’s a solid two.
Break song, Irish Lamentation by Musica Pacifica; end song, Bad Sign by Brad Sucks