American History

The Tragic Tale of Typhoid Mary


Typhoid Mary is a true tale about the danger of disease and the role individuals play in public health. It is the tragic tale of one woman and one disease that over the course of her life caused multiple outbreaks in the New York area. The tale of Typhoid Mary is one that is still relevant in the world today and raises moral questions about liberty versus public safety. So, who was Typhoid Mary and what did she do?

Who Was Typhoid Mary?

Mary Mallon, the woman who would come to be known as Typhoid Mary, was a New York based cook born in Ireland in 1869. Mary became the first known asymptomatic carrier of Typhoid in the United States, and over the course of her life started multiple outbreaks of Typhoid Fever, infecting at least fifty-three people with the disease, and inadvertently causing three deaths.

What is Typhoid

Typhoid, also known as Typhoid Fever, is a potentially fatal bacterial infection that causes fever, abdominal pain, headaches and a rash. Typhoid is caused by a bacterium within the salmonella family and is spread when food or water sources are contaminated with human waste or excrement from an infected person.

The disease can be managed through good hygiene practices and vaccination but is still common in many areas around the world, with the highest number of reported cases in India.

Without treatment, Typhoid Fever has a death rate of 20% and in 2015 149,000 people died of the disease globally.

Typhoid Fever carries the added risk of infected individuals becoming asymptomatic or chronic carriers.

What Did Typhoid Mary Do?

It is believed that Mary probably contracted the disease from her mother as an infant, possibly even being born with an asymptomatic infection. At fifteen Mary emigrated to New York, a talented cook, she gained employment for affluent families in the New York area.

Seven of the eight families that Mary worked for between the years of 1900 and 1907 experienced Typhoid outbreaks. In some cases Typhoid outbreaks occurred in households within two weeks of Mary coming to work for the family. These outbreaks included one household in which seven of the eight members of the house became infected and a small outbreak within a household in Oyster Bay, an area that Typhoid was uncommon at that time.

Mary would often leave her employment immediately after an outbreak, and as such, it was not until 1907 that the link between Mallon and the outbreaks was discovered. This discovery was made by George Soper, an investigator hired by one of Mary’s previous employers to discover why Typhoid outbreaks were occurring in wealthy families. Soper discovered Mary in 1907 after an outbreak occurred in a wealthy New York household resulting in the death of a girl from Typhoid Fever. Matching Mary to the description of a cook that had been hired by families before all the previous outbreaks, Soper discovered Mary to be the carrier.

Mary was hostile towards the idea that she was the cause of the Typhoid outbreaks. She was classed as a public health threat, detained by force and taken to Willard Park Hospital, where she was confirmed to be the first asymptomatic Typhoid carrier in the US with the infection carried in the gall bladder.

Mary was kept in quarantine on North Brother Island until 1910. During this time authorities suggested removing her gall bladder in an attempt to treat the asymptomatic infection, Mary however refused the procedure, remaining adamant that she did not carry the disease.

In 1910, Mary agreed that she would change occupations and adopt hygiene practices to protect others from infection and was released from quarantine. Mary briefly worked in other professions, including as a laundress, but finding this paid less than cooking, she soon began seeking employment as a cook again under false names. She caused multiple Typhoid outbreaks while working in hotels, restaurants and spas and infected twenty-five people and caused the death of two while working in a hospital kitchen.

Soper was once again hired to investigate the outbreaks in 1915, and again found Mary to be the cause. Mary fled to Long Island in an attempt to evade arrest but was discovered and detained in March 1915.

What Happened to Her?  

The rest of Mary’s life was by all accounts, a lonely one. She was once again quarantined on North Brother Island where she was given a cottage and spent the last twenty-three years of her life. She was on occasion allowed supervised day trips to the mainland and completed menial tasks as a technician for a lab that operated on the island. Mary died of pneumonia at the age of 69, only nine people attended the funeral.

Although there are three deaths confirmed to be the result of outbreaks caused by Typhoid Mary, it is believed that due to the fact that she operated under fake names, the number of deaths caused by Mary could be closer to fifty.

For many, Typhoid Mary’s story is one that can be seen as a cautionary tale. It shows the devastating effects of what can happen when a disease is not correctly managed. The tragic tale of Typhoid Mary raises important moral questions that are still relevant today about the role individuals play in public health and the balance between personal rights and freedoms and the safety of the wider community.


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