Typhoid Mary’s Story Seems Like an Apt Cautionary Tale for 2021
You’ve probably heard the tale of Typhoid Mary, but do you know her real story? Her tragedy feels ominously apt in the age of Covid and heated debate over face masks’ effectiveness.
Who was Typhoid Mary?
Her real name was Mary Mallon. At the tender age of fifteen, she immigrated from Ireland to the United States like so many others, looking for a brighter future. For some historical context, the Irish Potato Famine had occurred between 1845 and 1851. More than one million Irish people, mostly peasants, would die from starvation. The psychological, economic, and cultural scars were fresh and likely played a role in why Mallon found her hopes in the US’s direction.
Mallon crossed the pond and stayed with her aunt and uncle, and she quickly found work as a maid. It wouldn’t take long before she found employment as a cook and eventually leveled up and served in the kitchens of some of New York City’s wealthiest families. But tragically, typhoid would follow her, and people began to get gravely ill.
What no one knew about Mary is that she contracted typhoid while growing in her mother’s womb. Mary Mallon was an asymptomatic carrier, meaning she never showed symptoms or got sick. As a fresh-faced fifteen-year-old girl, she looked healthy and gave zero indication that she carried a deadly contagion. In the parlance of the Covid era, Mary Mallon was a super spreader.
Between 1900 and 1907, Mary would work in the homes of eight different wealthy families in New York. And along the way, she would infect upwards of 51 people, three of whom died. Some say that she may have infected far more and that 50 or more fatalities should be attributed to her, but only 51 infections and three deaths are on record in the history books.
The curious thing about typhoid fever is that it never seemed to afflict the wealthy it was seen as a disease of poverty. Authorities and professionals in the medical community were baffled as to why so many wealthy people in New York were suddenly coming down with typhoid fever. But in 1906, when Mallon began working for the Bowen family on Park Avenue, the maid became sick and was hospitalized, and soon after, the Bowen’s daughter tragically died. That’s when the case broke open, and investigators were able to identify Mary Mallon.
One prickly aspect of Mary Mallon’s story that is hard to find sympathy with is that she appeared to understand that she was the source of the outbreaks. As soon as people began to get sick around her, she’d leave her employer and refuse to give a forwarding address. Later in her life, she would adopt the habit of changing her name to Breshof or Brown and intentionally trying to dodge authority. By 1915 she worked in large industrial kitchens for hotels and spas despite being expressly told to stay away from cooking.
Mary was arrested and sent into multiple forced quarantines. She was considered the “unwanted ill” and would eventually die while in confinement. By the end of her life, she would spend a total of 26 years in isolation from the general public.
What is typhoid?
Salmonella typhi bacteria cause typhoid fever. It is not common in industrialized countries where basic hygiene is easy to practice thanks to access to hot water and soap. It is a contagious disease and spreads through food, water, and spending time close to an infected individual.
Unfortunately, Mary Mallon was known to not wash her hands, especially after using the restroom. She was uneducated, and she refused to believe medical authorities when presented with her disease’s facts. As a result, her ignorance and refusal to listen to science and medical facts cost others their health and lives. Mary was an asymptomatic carrier, and doctors discovered that typhoid thrived in her gallbladder.
Early in the disease, patients may experience unpleasant symptoms such as high fevers, headaches, stomach pain, constipation or diarrhea, weight loss, rashes, sweating, dry cough, severely swollen stomach, muscle aches, weakness, and fatigue. But it gets far worse. In advanced stages, typhoid causes deliriousness and something called a ‘typhoid state’ in which an inflicted patient will be unable to move from sheer exhaustion nor even close their eyes all the way.
Treatment for typhoid fever is generally a regiment of antibiotics and rest. But as simple as that may sound, complications and fatalities are not uncommon.
The importance of washing hands.
Suppose Mary Mallon had followed medical authorities’ instructions and took up a practice of hand washing and stayed away from cooking for others. In that case, she might have avoided much of the drama and tragedy that followed her. But her ignorance and insistence on disregarding medical advice eventually sickened and killed other people.
Nowadays, Typhoid Mary conjures up images of a Death Angel who moves around a community, spreading illness and filling graves. Imagine how simple it would have been for Ms. Mallon to wash her damn hands and stay the hell out of a kitchen.