Today, the term “Typhoid Mary” is used to denote someone who deliberately acts as a carrier of disease, or rather is aware that she is a carrier but does nothing to prevent infecting others. Urban legends about such people are quite common, and the phrase has even made the leap to tech jargon, describing a person who unwittingly spreads computer viruses. But the original Typhoid Mary was a real person whose life and death raised still-controversial issues about the trade-off between individual liberty and public health.
Typhoid Mary Arrives in America
Mary Mallon was born in September of 1869 in County Tyrone, Ireland, and in 1884 became one of the millions of Irish immigrants flooding into New York to seek a better life. She discovered she had a natural talent for cooking, and learned the skill to such an extent that she was very rarely out of work over the next several years. Although she was not financially secure by any means, working as a cook in a household was far better paid and more prestigious than other positions like maid or laundress. Mary Mallon even worked for some wealthy families, including that of the Vanderbilt’s banker.
The study of infectious disease was still rather rudimentary in those days, so Mary Mallon was able to work in several households between 1900 and 1907 before anyone began to discern a pattern. But pattern there was: The first house she worked in saw its residents infected with typhoid within two weeks of Mary securing employment there. At the next house, several family members contracted typhoid, and a member of the household staff died of it. All told, Mary Mallon is credited with spreading typhoid to at least 53 people and causing three deaths as she moved from household to household for employment.
At the time, the concept of a healthy carrier of disease was not widely known, so it’s probable Mary was not spreading the disease on purpose, at least at first. It was likely that Mary had suffered a bout of typhoid when she was younger and had recovered, but retained the bacteria in her body. The bacteria would have been present in her urine and feces, and unless she scrubbed her hands vigorously before touching anything, Mary could have easily spread the disease through her handling of food, or ironically through trying to care for family members who had contracted typhoid.
Scientist and typhoid expert George Soper was the first to see the trail of infection Mary was leaving in her wake, and in 1907 he tracked her down to ask for urine and stool samples to confirm his suspicions. Mary refused, insisting she was healthy and had never had typhoid. Soper’s next attempt was also a failure. Even when he offered Mary royalties if she would let him write a book about her, she furiously turned him away.
Finally, drastic measures were taken. Dr. Sara Josephine Baker of the New York City Health Department went to the house where Mary was working, police officers in tow, and forcibly took Mary into custody, claiming she was a danger to public health. Mary Mallon was taken to a clinic on North Brother Island and quarantined for three years against her will. At the end of this period, she was offered freedom, provided she no longer worked as a cook; unsurprisingly, Mary readily agreed.
Perhaps also unsurprisingly, Mary didn’t stick to the agreement. Clinic authorities secured her a job as a laundress, but the wages were significantly less than what she was used to, so using the pseudonym Mary Brown, Mallon got work as a cook again, going on to infect 25 people with typhoid. She was taken into custody again in 1915, and stayed in quarantine until she died of pneumonia in 1938. A post-mortem examination indeed found typhoid bacteria in her gall bladder. Though other “healthy carriers” were identified later, Mary Mallon was the first and most famous “Typhoid Mary,” a symbol of the constant struggle between an individual’s personal freedoms and the health of the community at large.