Typhoid Mary: the Tragedy of Mary Mallon

On 11 November 1938, a 69 year old Irishwoman died on North Brother Island, New York. She had been held in isolation for 23 years, yet she had not been charged or convicted with any criminal offence.

Mary Mallon was born in Cookstown, Ireland in 1869. She immigrated to America when she was a teenager and found employment in domestic service. She developed an aptitude for cooking, and as this paid more than basic service, Mary accepted several jobs as a cook for the wealthy. In 1906, Charles Henry Warren, a New York banker, rented a summer home for himself and his family on Long Island. Mary Mallon was engaged as a cook for the duration of their stay. From the end of August, one by one people began to fall ill with typhoid fever, in all, six of the eleven occupants of the house developed typhoid fever.

The owners of the property feared that they would be unable to secure further tenants if the public believed that the source of the outbreak was their property and so hired Dr George Soper to investigate the cause. Soper came to the conclusion that Mary Mallon was to blame for the spread of disease. Hindering his efforts, Mary had left their employment three weeks after the outbreak. Soper started to investigate the previous situations held by Mary Mallon. From 1900 to 1907 there had been seven jobs where, it was reported, somewhere between twenty-three and thirty-eight people became ill and one person, a child, died. Soper believed that Mary was the source of typhoid fever that had followed her employment history, but he needed biological samples to affirm his hypothesis.

In March 1907, Soper located Mallon, who was again working as a cook in a domestic post. He approached her at work and ‘was as diplomatic as possible’, but told Mallon that he suspected her of inadvertently making people sick and to prove this he needed samples of urine, faeces and blood from her. Mary reacted violently to this suggestion and chased him off the property with a carving fork. Soper, along with an assistant, continued his quest and located Mallon at her home and again, an enraged Mallon chased them off the premises. Unable to encourage Mallon to assist with his investigation, Soper now handed his research over to Hermann Biggs at the New York City Health Department. Biggs sent a female doctor, Dr Josephine Baker, to try to reason with Mallon. At this juncture, Mallon was extremely suspicious of health officials, and would not entertain Dr Baker. Baker then returned with five police officers and an ambulance.

Once again, Mary used a carving fork to defend herself and amid the confusion of Dr Baker stepping back sharply as Mary lunged at her and Baker ‘recoiling’ into a policeman, Mary disappeared. After a five hour search, Mary was found in a closet under the stairs of the next door property. An enraged Mary shocked her pursuers with her strength and unladylike language as she fought for her freedom. Full of righteous anger, she could not understand their claims of her being contagious and a danger to society. A policeman picked her up and manhandled her into the ambulance. Dr Baker admitted to sitting on her to keep her still on the journey to the hospital. Mary was taken to the Willard Parker Hospital, New York. After her samples tested positive for typhoid she was transferred to an isolated cottage, that was part of the Riverside Hospital, on North Brother Island.

Mary Mallon Stool Report (1907)

It was during her confinement that she was given the sobriquet ‘Typhoid Mary’, but she was also known as ‘Mary Ilverson’, as early newspaper reports hid her identity. The news travelled across the Atlantic and was reported in Ireland and Britain. Mary was labelled ‘a human culture tube’, ‘a veritable germ factory’ and, it was noted, had ‘in many homes left a trail of fatalities’. The press were conflicted in relation to Mary’s previous health issues and reported either that she had never had typhoid and was a carrier who was immune, or that she had typhoid fever in 1901 and was unusually still contagious after several years. It was, they said, ‘a case without parallel’ and although she was perfectly healthy she was ‘a danger to the community’. Furthermore, doctors did not know how to remove the typhoid bacillus from Mary ‘without assassinating her’. Some members of the public had sympathy with Mary and her plight, and it also elicited a  marriage proposal. A farmer from Michigan, it was reported in the Irish Independent, wrote to the Health Department of New York and declared he was not afraid of typhoid and liked good cooking and he would marry Mary if she was released.

The Greater New York Charter allowed for ‘all reasonable means for ascertaining the existence and cause of disease’. It essentially gave health officials the authority to remove Mary Mallon and quarantine her against her will. After two years of isolation, with only a dog for company, Mary sued the health department. They had tested her stools approximately weekly and 120 out of 163 samples proved positive. Yet Mary countered with her own private analysis, sampled over the preceding year, all coming back negative. Mary’s laboratory results proved for her, her healthy status and she failed to understand that she was diagnosed a healthy typhoid carrier. She was arguably the first person identified as such, and having not been charged with a criminal offence she felt it was barbaric to be treated like a criminal (and a ‘leper’) when she was innocent of any crime.

Mary Mallon could easily have had a very weak bout of typhoid fever resulting in a mild flu-like illness. This would have been enough to render her immune to the disease and facilitate its spread through each of her workplaces. Typhoid can be spread through contaminated water or food products and with poor hygiene habits. A cook was a prime conduit for the typhoid bacillus.

Mary lost her fight with the health officials and was remanded to the custody of the Board of Health of the City of New York. By now the name ‘Typhoid Mary’ had become synonymous with someone passing germs to another person, often in jest. But reality for Mary was isolation with little hope of freedom. However, in February 1910, a new health commissioner released Mary on the condition that she would never work as a cook again. Mary agreed to this stipulation and that of ensuring that she would take hygienic precautions to protect those that she came into contact with. Mary still felt healthy and for a time worked as a laundress, along with other low paid jobs that kept her out of the kitchen. Nevertheless, Mary eventually ignored the conditions of her release, changed her name and went to work as a cook.

In January 1915, Sloane Maternity Hospital in Manhattan suffered an outbreak of typhoid fever. Twenty-five people fell victim and two people died. A recently hired cook, Mrs Mary Brown, was suspected of being the infector. There was no sympathy for Mary when it became known she was working under a pseudonym. Five years earlier she had not known about her ‘healthy carrier’ status and when enlightened did not want to believe it, partly because she was fit and healthy. This time she had had years to understand her carrier status and had signed an affidavit to effect release, ensuring that she would not work as a cook again. This time she had willingly placed the public at risk.

Once again Mary Mallon was sent to North Brother Island, returning to the now familiar cottage for another twenty-three years. Little is known about her time on the island, however she did eventually help at the tuberculosis hospital, gaining the title ‘nurse’ in 1922, but it is unclear if that was from a formal qualification. In 1925 she began helping in the hospital’s laboratory. She was paralysed after a stroke in December 1932 and was nursed on the children’s ward until she died on 11 November 1938.


Images: Wikimedia Commons

7 thoughts on “Typhoid Mary: the Tragedy of Mary Mallon

  1. Ah, so that’s the story of Typhoid Mary! My coworker (we’re nurses) kept mentioning that she felt like Typhoid Mary when there was a period she kept getting patients who happened to develop shingles. I had no idea who she was talking about… but thanks to your post I finally understand. 😆

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Glad to help! I’m a pharmacy tech and I kept calling a colleague Typhoid Mary as she was accused of sharing her germs! 🙂 And then it dawned on me to write about her . . .

      Liked by 1 person

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