Skip to main content

For Find Out Friday - What Did Typhoid Mary Die Of?

I actually sort of know the answer to this question. 

I know that she did not die from typhoid as her name would suggest. 

She actually died at the age of sixty-nine from a pneumonia on November 11, 1938.

The story of Mary Mallon is a sad one. 

She was born in Ireland in 1869 and emigrated to the United States in 1883. As was common in those days, Mary found work as a domestic. She became a cook and in 1906 was working in Oyster Bay in Long Island in the summer home of Charles Henry Warren - a wealthy financier.

Within a week of her employment six of the eleven people in the household fell ill with typhoid. 

Typhoid is a bacterial infection that leads to high fevers, diarrhea, vomiting, coughing, abdominal pain, and fatigue. It is largely associated with poor and overcrowded areas where there is a limited availability of clean water. It can very quickly become fatal. 

With the much of the Warren household sick, a man named George Soper was hired to investigate. Soper was a sanity engineer and his investigation was the first to realize that an asymptomatic carrier could still infect others. He concluded that  Mary Mallon was the culprit, although by that time she was working for another family in NYC. It was found that seven out of the eight households she worked for had been infected with typhoid, likely from Mary and a lack of hand washing while preparing food.

Aside from “Typhoid Mary” Ms. Mallon had another nickname: “the kidnapped woman”.

After George Soper’s investigation was over he contacted the New York City Health Department and Mary Mallon was arrested in March of 1907. She was forced to live on North Brother Island, an inlet of the coast of the Bronx. Her only companion was a fox terrier. 

Mary was never fined or officially charged with a crime. In 1909 she sued the health department to be freed. The New York Supreme Court would not hear the case. 

In 1910 a new commissioner came on board and freed Mary in 1910 on the condition that she could no longer work as a cook. 

But Mary did not listen. 

Using the alas “Mary Brown” she was discovered to be working in the kitchen of Sloane Maternity Hospital in NYC when another typhoid outbreak occurred there in 1915. Twenty-five people were infected and two died. 

Shortly thereafter, Mary was back in custody and back living on North Brother Island. She would remain there until her death spending a total of twenty-six years in confinement, including the last twenty-three years of her life. While on the island she worked on preparing laboratory medical tests and is said to have found comfort in her religion. She was cremated and buried in St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. 

In total, it is thought that Mary infected some fifty odd people, resulting in a handful of deaths. 

Though far less common in developed countries, typhoid has not been fully eradicated. There are two vaccines now available and medications to treat if you have been infected. It is no longer a death sentence. 

Without a clear understanding of how she, a well person with no symptoms of disease, was transmitting typhoid to countless others, it is likely she was the victim of her circumstances. The fact that she was a single, working woman and an immigrant didn’t appear to help her cause. 

I have read that at the time she was urged to have her gallbladder removed as a way to prevent her from being able to further transmit this disease. I have no idea if that would have been helped but can you imagine what that must of sounded liked to Mary? A dangerous operation at that time, for a disease you did not actually have yourself. No wonder she declined.

As a result she became the ultimate victim of fear and the disease she is blamed for spreading. 

Although this story is almost one hundred years old it echos so much of what the world is currently experiencing while dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic. 

As we are urged to stay at home, avoid loved ones, and wear a mask, how many will ignore these precautions further causing countless people to get sick and even die? 

The shocking headline from this past Sunday’s New York Times that displayed the names of the one hundred thousand lives lost in the U.S. clearly drove that point home. 

It is these circumstances that have me thinking a lot about Mary Mallon.  

I wonder what her life was really like. How did she endure knowing that she was responsible for the illness of so many? How did she live the remainder of her life quarantined from any real contact with the outside world? 

Of course we will never truly know what she was thinking and feeling, but after a few months of separation from my own family and friends, I can’t help but feel sorry for her. 

Mary beared no responsibility for the genetic predisposition she was inflicted with but nonetheless had to pay the price for it. Surely, it was a matter of public health but also a matter of a personal sacrifice. She was made an example of even though over the course of many years, there were apparently over four hundred healthy carriers of typhoid, though no one else was made to live in a permanent state of quarantine. 

When I think of Mary’s life, wearing a mask when interacting with others doesn’t seem to be such a big deal. Ironically the hashtag #TyphoidMary has been circulating online when discussing those who are putting others at risk.  

BBC America was working on creating a mini-series called “Fever” staring our own Zoey Bartlet (for all you West Wing fans) aka Elizabeth Moss as Mary Mallon. I am currently trying to find out if it ever came to fruition so I can watch it.

In order to honor Mary and the legacy (good or bad) that she left behind, I think the first step is to reverse the tarnishing of her name. Therefore, I suggest we should stop calling her out of it.

For More Information:


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

For Find Out Friday - Why Do Emery Boards Make My Skin Crawl?

You know that sound a fingernail makes when it scratches against a chalkboard?  You know that feeling the sound of that action gives you? I, like most people, hate that sound.  I instantly feel like scrunching my shoulders up to my neck and closing my eyes.  I feel the exact same way when I am using an emery board to file my nails. This annoying sensation has a name: “grima” which is Spanish for disgust or uneasiness. This term basically describes any feeling of being displeased, annoyed, or dissatisfied someone or something.  It is a feeling that psychologists are starting to pay more attention to as it relates to our other emotions.  Emery boards are traditionally made with cardboard that has small grains of sand adhered to them. It is the sandpaper that I believe makes me filled with grima.  According to studies that are being done around the world, it is not just the feeling that we associate with certain things like nails on a chalkboard or by using emery boards

For My Madness During Migraine Awareness Month

Last weekend as I sat staring at the blank page in front of me, I was still surprised and elated that I had an entire day to myself and unlike past experiences it was filled with what I wanted when I wanted it. There were a few rough moments but when I consider the previous twelve hours (and the days to come) have been better than the last week. Especially this last week even though I had braced myself ahead of time, I just didn’t know I should have braced for a more serious episode. I am a chronic migraine sufferer for so many years I don’t quite remember when they started exactly which is ironic because I can remember every special event they have ruined. I remember plays or dinners I was at where I don’t remember what happened but I could tell you what I felt minute by minute. It amazing how the mind works, especially when it’s operated by a migraine brain. In the last few years, specifically the last few years since I have been going to the Montefiore Headac

For Find Out Friday - Why is One Foot More Ticklish Than the Other?

As I sit here typing I can’t seem to stop thinking about my nails. Mainly that they REALLY need to get done. They are starting to chip and become unruly. As soon I as think about making an appointment my mind immediately returns to this question: “which of my feet will be ticklish this time?” Because I am a girl that needs her fingernails and toenails to match, I always get a pedicure whenever I get my nails done. And while this should be an activity I enjoy, it often feels like a chore, despite my going only once every three to four weeks. I know; #firstworldproblems.  Anyway, each and every time I get my toes done, as soon as they are done soaking in the bubbly water I wonder, which of my feet will be ticklish today?  Without fail one of them always seems to get the brunt of it and suddenly what was supposed to be a relaxing activity has made me all tense. So, is there a scientific reason for this?  According to most research, yes. While the answer doesn’t