The Sad Story of Typhoid Mary and Her Refusal to Social Distance
Showing no signs of the disease, Mary Mallon spread it wherever she went
I have been in a state-enacted shelter-in-place order since March 21st. I am fortunate enough to live in a neighborhood with plenty of sidewalks and space to spend time outside safely. On daily walks with my family, where we avoid getting too close to others, we are still seeing groups of people everywhere. Groups of teenagers playing basketball at the park, groups of kids playing together in front yards, groups of adults walking together (and not 6 feet apart).
And it gets worse than that. I’m not referring to people that are required to leave their homes for work. I’m talking about the ones that are still attending social events such as church services, house parties, and weddings.
Social distancing to avoid the spread of a disease is nothing new to history, although it’s new to those of us living now. And sadly, ignoring social distancing measures, that’s nothing new either.
Typhoid Mary: The original noncomplier and super disease spreader
Typhoid is a bacterial disease easily cured with antibiotics. But when Mary Mallon, born in Ireland and emigrated to the U.S., first began spreading the disease in 1907, antibiotics were not an option. At that time, typhoid had a 25% mortality rate.
Mallon was a cook for wealthy families and every family she cooked for fell to the illness. A medical researcher, George Soper, traced the disease to Mallon when he found that seven families she had worked for had suffered from typhoid fever.
It was innovative for Soper to consider Mallon as a carrier. It was not understood until this case that someone might harbor the bacteria, spreading it, all the while looking the very picture of health.
Soper arrived at the house one day where Mallon was employed as a cook, asking to test her for the disease. But Mallon didn’t want to be tested for typhoid. As Soper recounted, “She seized a carving fork and advanced in my direction.” He returned later with the authorities, causing Mallon to go on the run. She was eventually caught and tested positive. Then forced to move to a quarantine facility at North Brother Island for five years.
Peach ice cream served with a side of germs
Typhoid is passed on from poor handwashing habits. Cooking kills the bacteria, but Mallon’s clients loved her peach ice cream in which she cut up raw peaches and froze them in the ice cream. Soper believed she didn’t practice good handwashing (everyone on this planet now knows you need to wash for 20 seconds at a time) and this was how she so easily spread the disease.
She couldn’t stay away from kitchens
Released in 1910, Mallon promised the authorities she would never work as a cook again. She may have tried to keep that promise. She was employed as a laundress after leaving her forced quarantine. But the pay was so much less than she had made previously as a cook. So she changed her name to Mary Brown and began working in the kitchens again.
In 1915, Sloane Hospital for Women suffered a typhoid outbreak, leading people to joke that Brown was Typhoid Mary. The jokes ended when it was discovered, she was Mary Mallon, the original Typhoid Mary.
Mallon was arrested and sent back to North Brother Island where she spent the last 23 years of her life.
As usual, the woman gets all the blame
Mallon may have been famous for spreading a deadly disease, but she wasn’t the only one. She wasn’t even the one to cause the most illness and death.
New York food worker, Tony Labella, caused two typhoid outbreaks that resulted in 122 illnesses and 5 deaths. Labella was released after two weeks of isolation. It’s now known that 1 to 6% of people carrying the bacteria will remain asymptomatic.
Perhaps it was her refusal to cooperate with authorities, or her denial she was infected. It may have been a prejudice against unmarried, Irish female immigrants. Or her repeat offenses. But whatever the reason, she was made the poster child for the malicious spreading of a deadly disease.
Mallon was portrayed by the press as being deceptive. And it was the media that gave her the nickname, “Typhoid Mary.” But rather than deliberately spreading the disease, it’s more than likely she simply didn’t understand the significance of being a healthy carrier, and nobody ever attempted to help her understand it. She was told the only cure for the disease was the removal of her gallbladder, an operation she refused.
Her skills were cooking, it’s how she made her living. Other attempts at earning a living were not as prosperous for Mallon. Without a proper understanding of the danger she possessed, she simply changed her name and went back to earning a living the only way she knew.
The price she paid for her misunderstanding was a lifetime quarantine and isolation.
Typhoid Mary’s sad story is a lesson in the difficulty we have in getting healthy infected people to understand their contagion
Mallon wrote to her lawyer stating the following,
“I have been in fact a peep show for everybody. Even the interns had to come to see me and ask about the facts already known to the whole wide world. The tuberculosis men would say ‘There she is, the kidnapped woman.’”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 25% of COVID-19 carriers may be asymptomatic. You can be contagious for days before showing any signs of the illness. That means if you are out and about, carrying on with business as usual, you may be spreading the disease without the slightest idea.
We learned over 100 years ago that healthy people can unwittingly spread disease. Yet, the challenge remains the same today. How to explain to infected people showing no symptoms, that they’re spreading illness?
We’ve got to do a better job today than the authorities did with poor Mary Mallon back then. We don’t know which of us is playing the part of Typhoid Mary in our current situation. We’ve recently learned that simply talking or breathing may spread it.
The good news is, we can safely eat peach ice cream. As long as we do it from home.