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Mary Mallon

Mary Mallon (September 23, 1869November 11, 1938), also known as Typhoid Mary, was the first person in the United States to be identified as a healthy carrier of typhoid fever. Over the course of her career as a cook, she infected 47 people, three of whom died from the disease. Her fame is in part due to her vehement denial of her own role in spreading the disease, together with her refusal to cease working as a cook. She was forcibly quarantined twice by public health authorities and died in quarantine. It was also possible that she was born with the disease, as her mother had typhoid fever during her pregnancy.


Mallon was born in 1869 in County Tyrone, Ireland, and emigrated to the United States in 1884. She worked as a cook in the New York City area between 1900 and 1907. She had been working in a house in Mamaroneck, New York for less than two weeks when the residents came down with typhoid. She moved to Manhattan in 1901 and members of the family for whom she worked developed fevers and diarrhea and the laundress died. She then went to work for a lawyer until seven of the eight household members developed typhoid. Mary spent months helping to care for the people she made sick, but her care further spread the disease through the household. In 1906, she took a position in Long Island. Within two weeks, six out of eleven family members were hospitalized with typhoid. She changed employment again and three more households were infected.

People catch typhoid fever after ingesting water or food which has been contaminated during handling by a human carrier. The human carrier is usually a healthy person who has survived a previous episode of typhoid fever but in whom the typhoid bacteria have been able to survive without causing further symptoms. Carriers continue to excrete the bacteria in their excrement and urine. It takes vigorous scrubbing and sanitation to remove the bacteria from the hands. Though Mary washed her hands every time she used the bathroom, she still infected people.

When typhoid researcher George Soper approached Mallon with the news she was possibly spreading typhoid, she adamantly rejected his request for urine and stool samples. Soper left and later published his findings in the June 15, 1906 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. On his next contact with her, he brought a doctor with him, but was again turned away. Mallon's denials that she was a carrier were based in part on the diagnosis of a reputable chemist who had found she was not harboring the bacteria. It is possible she was in temporary remission when tested. Moreover, when Soper first told her she was a carrier, the concept that a person could spread disease and remain healthy was not well known. Finally, George Soper may have been somewhat tactless in his dealings with her. During a later encounter in the hospital, he told Mary he would write a book about her and give her all the royalties. She got up and locked herself in the bathroom until he left.


The New York City Health Department sent Dr. Sara Josephine Baker to talk to Mary, but "by that time she was convinced that the law was wrongly persecuting her when she had done nothing wrong."

A few days later, Baker arrived at Mary's place of work with several police officers and took her into custody. The New York City health inspector investigated and found her to be a carrier. She was isolated for three years at a hospital located on North Brother Island, and then released on the condition she would not work with food. However, she assumed the pseudonym "Mary Brown", returned to cooking, and in 1915 infected 25 people while working as a cook at New York's Sloane Hospital for Women; one of those infected died. Public health authorities again seized Mary Mallon and returned her to quarantine on the island, this time for life. She became something of a celebrity, and was interviewed by journalists who were forbidden to accept as much as a glass of water from her. Later in life, she was allowed to work in the island's laboratory as a technician.


Mallon died on November 11, 1938 at the age of 69 due to pneumonia, six years after a stroke had left her paralyzed. An autopsy found evidence of live typhoid bacteria in her gallbladder. Her body was cremated with burial in Saint Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx.


Part of the problems Mary created stemmed from her vehement denial of the situation. She maintained she was healthy and had never had typhoid fever. Historians say it also stemmed from the prejudice that existed against working-class Irish immigrants at the time. Today, Typhoid Mary is a generic term for a carrier of a dangerous disease who is a danger to the public because they refuse to take appropriate precautions.


Further reading

  • Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical, Anthony Bourdain, Bloomsbury, New York, 2001, hardcover, 148 pages, ISBN 1-58234-133-8
  • Typhoid Mary, Captive to the Public's Health, Judith Walzer Leavitt, Beacon Press, Boston, 1996, hardcover, 331 pages, ISBN 0-8070-2102-4
  • Fighting for Life, Sara Josephine Baker, Macmillan Press, New York 1939, ISBN 0-405-05945-0 (1974 ed), ISBN 0-88275-611-7 (1980 ed)
  • The Ballad of Typhoid Mary, Jürg Federspiel [translated by Joel Agee], Ballantine Press, New York, 1985
  • Typhoid Mary. .
  • (1939). "Mary Mallon (Typhoid Mary)". American journal of public health and the nation's health 29 (1): 66–8.
  • Aronson, S M (1995). "The civil rights of Mary Mallon". Rhode Island medicine 78 (11): 311–2.
  • Brooks, J (1996). "The sad and tragic life of Typhoid Mary". CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l'Association medicale canadienne 154 (6): 915–6.
  • Finkbeiner, Ann K "Quite contrary: was "Typhoid Mary" Mallon a symbol of the threats to individual liberty or a necessary sacrifice to public health?". The Sciences 36 (5): 38–43.

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