The Tragedy of Typhoid Mary

'Typhoid' Mary MallonOn this day in 1869, Mary Mallon was born. She is better known as Typhoid Mary, because she was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever who infected many people in New York.

She was born in Ireland and immigrated to the United States when she was 15 years old. I don’t know what she did for the first 15 years in the States other than live with her Aunt and Uncle. But at the age of 30, she began working as a cook for a number of wealthy families in New York. She must have known somewhere in her mind that there was something wrong. She would start a new job, people would get sick. She would move to a new job and the same thing would happen again. During the first years of the twentieth century, she worked for seven different families. Eventually, one of the families hired the sanitation engineer George Soper and he figured out that it had to be Mallon.

This led to Mallon’s being quarantined (jailed) for three years at North Brother Island. After that time, she was released under the condition that she not work with food. She was given a job working in a laundry, but it paid very poorly. So she changed her name and went back to cooking. She always maintained that she was not a carrier of typhoid fever. And indeed, asymptomatic carriers of the disease were unheard of. I’m sure there was a lot of cognitive dissonance. After infecting a whole lot of people over the course of five years, she was arrested and sent back to North Brother Island, where she lived for the remaining 23 years of her life.

There are a few interesting things about her case. One is that other asymptomatic carriers of the disease had been discovered, but the state did not lock them up. Specifically, there were three men who were all responsible for as many or more cases of the disease. Was it sexism or racism or just that she was the first discovered? I don’t know. Clearly, something needed to be done. But it needed to be done for all the cases, not just this one.

What’s more, this is one of those cases where I just don’t understand government policy. Here was Mallon who didn’t want to be confined to hospital/prison all her life. She had been okay working as a laundress but found she couldn’t make it on the salary. This is clearly a problem you could throw money at. And indeed, the government did. She had to be cared for on North Brother Island. Why not instead set her up in a dress shop and give her a guaranteed salary? But no. We have the same problem today. We are more than willing to spend $50,000 per year to lock up drug users, but spending $20,000 per year to send them to school is just unacceptable.

Regardless of all the damage that Mary Mallon did in her life, she is still a tragic figure. And the great crime is not hers, but the government’s. And in terms of how people are treated, things really haven’t changed in the century since she lived. We have certainly gotten much better at the science and at treating the disease. But in terms of humanity, we are still as primitive as ever.

Happy birthday Mary Mallon!

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