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Typhoid Mary: How one woman took the blame for the typhoid epidemic


Mary Mallon, AKA "Tyhpoid Mary" is circled

The Curious Career of Typhoid Mary is the story of Mary Mallon, a cook who unwittingly spread typhoid fever to multiple households in the early 20th century.


Mary Mallon was born in Ireland in 1869 and immigrated to the United States in the late 19th century. She worked as a cook for several wealthy families in New York City and Long Island, but wherever she worked, outbreaks of typhoid fever would follow. Typhoid fever is a bacterial infection that causes fever, abdominal pain, and diarrhea and can be fatal in severe cases. There is a vaccine for typhoid now but there wasn't at the time.


In 1906, after an outbreak of typhoid fever occurred in a high-end summer home in Oyster Bay, New York where Mary was working, a public health official named George Soper was hired to investigate the outbreak. Soper was a sanitary engineer who had studied typhoid fever outbreaks and believed that contaminated food and water were the main sources of transmission.


Soper began investigating the case and eventually traced the outbreak to Mary Mallon, who had worked as a cook in the household. Soper believed that Mary was a healthy carrier of the disease, meaning that she carried the bacteria that caused typhoid fever but did not show any symptoms herself.


Soper convinced the authorities to force Mary to provide samples of her urine and feces for testing, and the results confirmed that she was indeed a carrier of the disease. However, Mary refused to believe that she was responsible for the outbreaks and refused to cooperate with public health officials.


Eventually, Mary was arrested and quarantined on North Brother Island, a small island off the coast of New York City, where she was held in isolation for over two years. During this time, she was studied by public health officials and subjected to various medical tests, but she remained uncooperative and defiant.


In 1910, Mary was released from quarantine on the condition that she not work as a cook or handle food in any way. However, Mary violated this agreement and resumed working as a cook under a false name. Once again, outbreaks of typhoid fever occurred in locations where she worked (a hospital this time), and public health officials were forced to track her down.


Mary was arrested and returned to North Brother Island, where she remained in isolation for the rest of her life. She died in 1938 at the age of 69.


The case of Typhoid Mary became a famous example of the dangers of asymptomatic carriers of disease and the need for public health officials to take action to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. Mary's story also raised questions about the ethics of quarantine and the rights of individuals who are suspected of being carriers of disease.


In the decades since Mary's case, there have been significant advances in the understanding and treatment of typhoid fever, and the disease is now relatively rare in developed countries. This is largely due to improvements in sanitation as well as availability of the typhoid vaccine. However, the legacy of Typhoid Mary lives on as a cautionary tale about the importance of public health and the responsibility of individuals to take steps to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.


There have been other asymptomatic carriers of typhoid fever like Typhoid Mary. In fact, after Mary's case was publicized, public health officials became more aware of the possibility of healthy carriers of the disease and began actively searching for them.


One notable example is Tony Labella, who was a New York City resident in the early 20th century. Like Mary, Labella was a healthy carrier of the typhoid bacteria and spread the disease to multiple people. He was eventually located and isolated, but not before he had infected many others.


Another example is Alphonse Cotils, a Belgian immigrant who worked as a chef in the United States in the early 20th century. Cotils was responsible for several outbreaks of typhoid fever in different cities, and his case was eventually traced back to him. Like Mary, Cotils was isolated and studied by public health officials, but he was eventually released and disappeared from public view.


More recently, there have been other cases of asymptomatic carriers of typhoid fever, although they are relatively rare. In 2018, for example, a woman in Japan was found to be a carrier of the disease and had unknowingly spread it to at least five people.


Overall, while cases of asymptomatic carriers of typhoid fever are relatively rare, they do occur, and public health officials continue to monitor for such cases in order to prevent the spread of the disease.



Source:

Soper, George A. (October 1939). "The Curious Career of Typhoid Mary". Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. 15 (10): 698–712.

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