Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Curious Case Of Typhoid Mary

We've all heard sick people exclaim, "Watch out, I'm typhoid Mary today!" over concern of how many people they could potentially infect.

I happened to be reading the book, Deadly Choices, by Dr. Paul Offitt which is a non-fiction book that talks about the effects of the anti-vaccine movement on public health. I happened to come across the true story of Mary Mallon AKA Typhoid Mary.

Mary Mallon was a cook. In 1906 she was hired by New York banker Charles Warren for the summer as he vacationed with his family in a rented home on Oyster Bay, Long Island. During that summer, six of eleven people in the household became ill with typhoid fever. Since typhoid fever is spread through food and water sources, the homeowners feared they wouldn't be able to rent the property again unless the true source was discovered so they hired private investigators to look into possible causes.

All roads led back to Mary Mallon and she was approached to give samples of her blood, urine and feces to look for the bacteria. To say Mary Mallon was a cooperative patient would be like saying the Tasmanian devil was a soft furry bunny. She had to be brought against her will to the hospital and though sources don't explicitly say, I'm gathering she didn't easily give up the specimens they wanted.

Salmonella typhi was found in her feces and Mary Mallon became the first identified healthy carrier of  salmonella typhi. This was very hard for her to understand. How could she possibly be causing these illnesses if she herself was asymptomatic? In order to prevent her from infecting others, she was quarantined to a small cottage on North Brother Island from 1907-1910.

In 1909, Mary sued the health department for unlawful imprisonment but lost. In 1910, after a new health commissioner came to power, she was released under her promise that she would never take work as a cook again.

January 1915, Sloan Maternity Hospital in Manhattan suffered a typhoid outbreak. It was traced back to a cook, Mrs. Brown, who was really Mary Mallon working under a pseudonym.

She was quarantined for the remainder of her life from 1915-1938. She spent a total of 26 years in quarantine.

The case of Typhoid Mary brings up several interesting issues. One being, what power should the state/government hold for the health of a population? I'm curious as to your answers as we'll be looking at this more when it comes to religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccines.


  1. Excellent article, Jordyn. I've heard of Typhoid Mary all of my life but never knew her history. Thanks for bringing this to us. Great blog!

    Kathy Maher

  2. Mary Mallon became a murderer by not abiding by the agreement to no longer work as a cook. She willingly endangered the life over person she cooked for. For the people she made sick prior to knowing she was a carrier she was blameless but once she knew she became a killer. She should have been brought to trial for the murders of all the people who died of typhoid at the hospital because she knew at that time she was a carrier. Of course, that is only my opinion.

  3. Thanks Debbie and Kathy for your comment. I'm glad you're enjoying the blog.

    So Stacy Thought... interesting comment. I think your opinion would make good fodder for a novel. There are currently people who are also asymptomatic carriers for other bacteria: MRSA and strep to name a few. What if someone contracted the illness from them and died. Should these individuals be quarantined?

    And too, what about parents who choose not to immunize. Say an older unimmunized child passes pertussis to an infant who is too young to be immunized and that infant dies. Should the parents of the older child be held responsible?

    These are the issues that spring from Mary's story.

  4. Awesome post, Jordyn! I love it. Do you know where she lived out her quarantine?

  5. I believe she was back at North Brother Island.