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Was 'Typhoid Mary' the victim of an unjust system or a menace to public health?

Irishwoman Mary Mallon (better known as ‘Typhoid Mary’) was an infamous asymptomatic typhoid carrier who has been blamed for the deaths of several people.

Ella Hassett

THIS WEEK’S Women in History blog is about a woman often referred to in passing, but one I never realised was Irish. I first wrote about her for the Women’s Museum of Ireland (www.womensmuseumofireland.ie – check out their website for more biographies of Irish women) and it is a tale that continues to fascinate me. Here is Mary Mallon, better known as Typhoid Mary…

Mary Mallon, or Typhoid Mary, was an infamous asymptomatic typhoid carrier. Because of the risk she posed to the public, she was quarantined and this has caused fierce debate. It can be viewed as either an unjust denial of personal freedom or a necessary sacrifice for the greater good. Some historians provide a sympathetic account of one woman’s imprisonment, while others advocate that her quarantine helped to save lives from an infection that killed thousands throughout the centuries.

Mary had mysteriously left her post shortly after the outbreak

Typhoid is a disease caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi, transmitted through ingestion of contaminated food or water. Symptoms include diarrhoea, fever and headaches, and can lead to septicaemia and even death if untreated.

However, an individual can be asymptomatic and still carry the disease. Mallon had the misfortune to be one of these healthy carriers, a claim that she denied fervently throughout her life.

She was born in Cookstown, Co Tyrone on the 23rd of September 1869, but little is known of her early life. At around the age of 15 she left Ireland for America, where she found work initially as a maid, then as a cook. It is believed she developed typhoid in 1900 and passed the disease onto many others throughout her life. In 1906, the family and staff of Charles Henry Warren moved into a property in Oyster Bay for the summer. Soon afterwards seven members of the household contracted typhoid fever. A sanitary engineer, George Soper, was brought in to investigate and immediately suspected the cook, Mary Mallon, who had mysteriously left her post shortly after the outbreak.

A history of typhoid outbreaks had followed her career path

A study into Mallon’s employment history indicated that typhoid outbreaks had followed her career path. Between 1901 and 1907 she had worked in seven different jobs, within which 22 people had become sick and one had died. It is suggested that she never left forwarding addresses once she left work, making it difficult to find her. When Soper finally tracked her down and tried to obtain blood and faecal samples, she was angry and violent, lashing out at him with a carving knife.

Mallon was equally as vicious when pursued by Dr Josephine Baker of the New York City Health Department, coming out “fighting and swearing, both of which she could do with appalling efficiency and vigour”. She was taken into custody and quarantined for three years (1907 – 1910) in a small cottage on North Brother Island. This ruling was based on the Greater New York Charter, written before the existence of healthy carriers was accepted.

One can understand Mallon’s reticence to comply, considering she did not feel unwell, yet was constantly being accused of threatening the health of the general public. To her dying day, Mallon denied being contagious and constantly fought against the typhoid carrier label, refusing to acknowledge governmental authority on the matter.

Despite an appeal against her imprisonment in 1909, the judge ruled that she continue her quarantine, until a new more sympathetic Health Commissioner, Dr. Ernest J. Lederle, eventually struck a deal with her. In February 1910, he allowed Mallon to go free, on the condition she sign an affidavit stating she would endeavour to prevent the spread of infection by taking the necessary precautions and cease work as a cook entirely.

Was she malicious? 

It is at this point in the story that opinions diverge on Mallon and her motives. Mallon did try to get work in other posts, such as a laundress, but it was well known that the pay for a cook was far higher, so she returned to her prohibited position preparing food. Some believe that she never had any intention of following the Health Commissioner’s rules and that she was a malicious creature. Others feel that she was did not truly understand the implications of her condition or accept its existence, due to the lack of symptoms.

In a New York American article from June 1910, she was branded ‘Typhoid Mary’ and depicted in a sketch, with skulls forming dramatically in her breath. Mallon checked in with the Health Department a few times and then disappeared for several years, after trying and failing to sue the city for $50,000 in damages for illegal detention.

In 1915, a significant typhoid outbreak at the Sloane Hospital for Women killed two people. Again, the trail led to the kitchen and an Irish woman matching Mallon’s description, but with the name Mrs Brown. Despite trying to conceal her identity with a different name, she was caught again hiding in Corona, Queens in March 1918. Mallon was sent to North Brother Island, where she spent the remainder of her life, continually protesting her innocence and wellbeing. Although isolated, she was allowed to work at the island’s hospital and lab and was given her own cottage.

She died on the 11th of November 1938 of a stroke. Her obituary in the New York Times attributed to her 51 cases of infection and three deaths and indicated that only nine people attended her funeral mass.

She was not the most deadly, but she is the best remembered

Mallon brought the status of the healthy carrier to the public’s attention for the first time. She was not the most deadly of her contemporary typhoid carriers (for example Tony Labella caused five deaths), neither was she the only one to break the conditions of her freedom. But her legacy endures, as many of us have heard the phrase “Typhoid Mary” in passing.

Leavitt, who wrote Mallon’s biography, also suggests that this may have been due to her status as a working class Irish woman in America. Her infamy can also be attribute to her outright denial of her condition, refusal to cooperate and blatant disregard for the Health Commissioner’s regulations. Mary Mallon – victim of an unjust system or a dangerous threat to public health? You decide.

Ella Hassett is a part time library assistant in Trinity College, Dublin, with a MPhil in Public History and Cultural Heritage, who devotes much of her time researching remarkable women in Irish history.

The views expressed in NWCI’s Blog do not necessarily represent those of NWCI.

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Ella Hassett

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