In the summer of 1906, the Warren family were summering on Long Island when six out of the eleven people staying at the rented house came down with typhoid fever. Charles Warren wanted to know who to blame for the outbreak in his family so hired an investigator named George Soper. Soper soon decided that the most likely culprit was the cook, Mary Mallon.
Typhoid fever is caused by the bacterium Salmonella Typhi, which is easily transmitted through contaminated food and poor public sanitation conditions. One of the first outbreaks of typhoid is thought to have occurred in 430 BC Athens, killing a third of the population and helping to end the Age of Pericles.
In 1838, English doctor William Budd realised contaminated water was the factor in the spread of infectious disease. However during the American Civil War more soldiers were still killed by typhoid than died in battle and by the mid to late nineteenth century, the annual typhoid death rate in chicago was 174 per 100,000.
Once Karl Eberth had identified the bacteria behind typhoid fever, it only look 16 years to develop a vaccine. The initial version of the vaccine was first used by British soldiers during the Second Boer War, and then 10 million doses of a more developed version were given to troops during WWI.
But for Mary Mallon, being accused of having typhoid in 1906 New York was insulting and degrading. Typhoid was now thought of as the disease of the dirty, unwashed masses. Not something that clean, proper folks caught.
From her childhood in poverty in County Tyrone, Ireland, Mary had immigrated to the United States alone at just 15. Her career as a cook for various wealthy New York families was impressive and well paid. By her mid-thirties she had built herself a small reputation around Manhattan for her fine peach ice-cream.
As Soper went through her employment records, he found that she had worked for seven families since 1900. In those households, 22 people had become sick with typhoid and one had died. Soon he had tracked her to her new workplace and the investigator confronted the cook.
Mallon was unimpressed by the strange man in her kitchen accusing her of infecting her employers, and chased him out with a meat fork. Soper then brought the New York Health Department and police officers to Mallon’s house.
Confused, and scared, Mallon ran and then put up a fight. Eventually she was taken into custody and placed in a quarantine ward on North Brother Island. There was no long term plan for Mary, she was kept in virtual isolation and treated poorly by staff and other patients.
Over 163 samples of various bodily fluids were taken from Mary, mostly against her will, and 120 tested positive for typhoid. Doctors did not understand at the time how she was able to shed the bacteria and yet show no symptoms of the disease.
Soon public opinion was moving into Mary’s favour. By 1910 was perceived as unfair that a woman that did no willful wrong could be held against her will. After three years in quarantine she was eventually allowed to leave the hospital on the understanding that she would no longer work as a cook.
Authorities eventually lost track of Mary, but in 1915 a typhoid outbreak at a maternity hospital lead to 25 sick and, sadly, two deaths. A woman named Mary Brown was working in the kitchens, and it didn’t take long for her to be recognised as Mary Mallon.
Once again, Mary was hunted down and arrested. It seems that she truly didn’t understand that she was capable of infecting people with this disease as she had never had typhoid symptoms herself.
None of the doctors had ever taken the time to explain to her how the bacteria could lie dormant, they had just demanded that she give up the only line of work she had ever known. However the public had no sympathy for Mary now and she spent the remaining 23 years of her life in quarantine.
By the time Mary Mallon died, 400 other asymptomatic typhoid carriers like her had been identified in the USA. None of the other carriers were quarantined like Mary, not even Alphonse Cotils who worked as a baker or Tony Labella who is thought to have caused over 100 cases of typhoid fever and at least five deaths.
Why Mary alone was forced to spend her life in isolation is unknown. It’s possible she completely refused to comply with demands to change her profession, that the trust was broken after the incident at the maternity hospital, or that doctors thought she was incapable of understanding her situation.
Mary died of pneumonia after suffering a stroke in the Riverside Hospital in 1938. Samples taken during her autopsy found evidence of typhoid still in her system. Mary was cremated and her name became synonymous with anyone who, knowingly or not, spreads sickness and disease.