Mary Mallon


There are many characters in the history, who are famous for various reasons. What do you think about being famous as the first person? Like being the first person to land on moon or the first person to travel around the world. Or like the first person who caught a viral illness. It is certain that no matter the reason all of them will eventually become famous and will receive love, hate and sympathy.

Today I will be telling you about the story of the woman who was famous for being identified as asymptomatic carrier of Typhoid bacteria.

What is Typhoid fever?

Typhoid is an illness caused by a bacteria called Salmonella. The symptoms include fever which increased daily Headache, weakness and fatigue, muscle aches, sweating, dry cough, loss of appetite, weight loss, stomach pain, diarrhea or constipation, rash, swollen stomach (enlarged liver or spleen). The symptoms begin to show after a week of ingestion. Though it is not deadly in modern days if not treated well it can get worse. Today vaccines have developed to fight against the disease. According to WHO about 11-20 million cases of typhoid are recorded each year and 100,000 to 170,000 deaths are recorded.

Typhoid is spread by eating or drinking food or water contaminated with the feces of an infected person. That is why personal hygiene is more important when it comes to viral or bacterial diseases. We had chance to learn more about them in the past two year due to global pandemic but not only COVID is preventable. There are many diseases that can be prevented if we maintain our personal hygiene.

Who is an asymptomatic carrier?

Usually when a person or an animal is infected they show symptoms but an asymptomatic carrier does not show any symptom related to the infection. But that person can transmit the disease to another person just like a patient who is infected and display symptoms.

Let’s read Mary Mallon’s story and how the inexperienced early 20th century society handled it.

Mary Mallon was born in Ireland in 1869. At the age of 15 she migrated to the United States to live with her aunt and uncle. After several jobs she found herself as a cook for the most affluent families in the New York City area. Between 1900 – 1907 she worked for 8 rich families and 7 out of them were infected by the fever.

In 1906 Mary Mallon moved to Oyster Bay to work for a family who rented a house for the summer that year. Between late August and early September of the same year 11 people were infected with Typhoid fever.

It was unusual to have typhoid outbreak in the area and the property owner was concerned about the situation. Because the illness was known to be occur among the unsanitary conditions and it could affect the reputation of his property. So the owner decided to hire few investigators to find out about the outbreak. The investigators collected samples from pipes, toilets and faucets for the analysis. After further checking all the samples came back as negative.

George Soper, who was one of the hired officers investigated the servants who had been working in the household and realized that one of the workers who had been working there had worked for families who had infected with Typhoid in the past. By this time Mary had moved to a new household as their cook. Eventually Soper had tracked down Mallon who lived in the Park Avenue, New York. The outbreak in the Park Avenue made it easier to find which household she resided in.

George Soper met Mary Mallon at the new employer’s kitchen where he accused Mary of spreading the disease and asked her to give him samples of her urine and stool. Mary was so furious and refused Soper’s accusations and giving samples. But Soper was not willing to give up his fight. He found out about where Mary’s boyfriend was living and arranged a meeting there. He even took a doctor with him to persuade Mary to give him samples for further analysis. Even then Mary did not agree to Soper’s suggestions. Soper was not discouraged instead he notified New York City Health Department about Mary and her condition. The investigators at the NYC Health Department realized that Mary Mallon was Typhoid Carrier.

Soon After Mary Mallon was arrested as a public health threat. She was forcibly thrown into an ambulance with the help of five policemen who had to restrain her since she did not want to get in.

Then she was taken to the hospital at the North Brother island, where she was restrained and forced to give out stool and urine samples for the analysis. The tests revealed massive amount of typhoid bacteria in her stool. Further tests showed that the source of infection was her gallbladder. Some doctors suggested to remove it which Mary refused. Because at the time such a surgery was too dangerous to the patience and she refused to believe that she was actually a carrier.

Mary Mallon was restrained and she was not allowed to use bathroom alone. She was also forced to five samples. then she was put under thorough questioning which revealed that she did not wash her hands. It was common for the people in that society to not to wash hands often since the theory about germs were not accepted to be true.

Mary Mallon did not believe that she was the reason for typhoid fever outbreaks hence she did not want to stop working as a cook. Also working as a cook earned her more money and Mary had not have any assets of her own. Because of how she was treated at the hospital and her economical state Mary Mallon was suffering from nervous breakdown.

George Soper published his findings on the Journal of the American Medical Association which was gained Mary public attention. Soon Newspapers and tabloids gave her a nick name called “Typhoid Mary“. During her time in quarantine Soper visited Mary. He was willing to write a story about Mary Mallon and to share the part of his earnings. But Mary even did not want to visit him let alone to talk to Soper.

Though she was forcibly quarantined there was a bunch of medical experts that did not agree on it. They suggested that instead quarantine Mary Mallon should be taught how to live freely without transmitting the disease to others. After 2 years and 11 month it was decided that the disease carrier should not be kept in isolation. Mary Mallon was freed under several conditions. She was not allowed to work as a cook and she had to be careful to not to spread the disease to others around her.

After she was freed Mary Mallon started working as a laundress but her earnings were not good as before. She spent several years at the very edge of poverty. After a while Mary started working as a cook once again. Since the Name Mary Mallon was famous she had to use different fake surnames to get a new job. But she was not hired for any rich family. Because of that she had to work as a cook in restaurants and hotels which served food for many people. Soper was unable to find her since she used fake names and changed her job often.

In 1915 the head of the Sloane hospital for women hired Soper to investigate about the typhoid outbreak where Soper identified Mallon as the source, who was working at the hospital as a cook. After her identity was exposed Mallon fled the area but soon police caught her while carrying food for one of her friends. Mary was quarantined for the second time. She spend 23 years during her 2nd quarantine in the North Brother island. She was given a small cottage to live in. She was allowed to take short trips to the mainland and she was working as a technician in the hospital’s laboratory. Mallon washed bottles, did recordings, and prepared glasses for pathologists.

Mary Mallon suffered a stroke in 1932 which paralyzed half of her body. she was confined to the hospital and on 11th November in 1938, she died of pneumonia at age of 69.

The experts believe that Mary Mallon had contaminated at least 120 people and by the time of her death several other healthy typhoid carriers were identified but non of them were treated like the Mallon was.

The story of Mary Mallon will stay forever as a dark period in the medical history. The way Mallon was treated cannot be accepted as reasonable in any way. We should be glad that we live in a period that no human being are treated like Mary Mallon did. Specially during the global pandemic. She was the first healthy carrier found in the US so even the medical experts did not have the knowledge to how to deal with such a patience.

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