Mary Harbored Contagious Bacteria

Fourteen-year-old Mary Mallon came to the United States from Cookstown, County Tyrone, Ireland, one of the poorest areas of the green island. At first, like so many single female immigrants, she found work in New York City as a household servant, but it didn’t take long before her employers found that she was proficient in the kitchen, so by the early 1900s, she was cooking for some of the City’s wealthiest families.

One of Mary’s most popular desserts was ice cream with fresh cut-up peaches frozen in it. Although delicious, it would prove to be the cause of three deaths and more than fifty cases of typhoid fever. It took a sanitary engineer to ferret out where the infection started.

In the summer of 1906, Mary was cooking for a rich banker, Charles Warren, and his family while they vacationed on posh Long Island’s Oyster Bay. While there, six members of the Warren household came down with typhoid fever. Long viewed as a disease among slums where sanitation was absent, it was a mystery as to how it came to the playground of New York’s wealthiest citizens. After all, the neighborhood was also home to President Teddy Roosevelt’s summer White House.

Freelance sanitary engineer Dr. George Soper was hired to find the cause of the sickness at the Warren house. He was especially interested in this case, because he had investigated other cases in the City. He went over the Warren house with a fine tooth comb, checking the plumbing and even going so far as to check the seafood supplier.

Finally, Soper turned his eye toward their Irish cook, Mary Mallon. He looked into her employment history back as far as 1900. He found twenty-two cases of typhoid fever—one resulting in death—in seven households where she had cooked.

What he discovered was that although Mary, herself, was as healthy as a horse—had never had a symptom—she was a carrier of the bacteria. She passed the bacteria on to the people she cooked for by not washing her hands before fixing meals. He knew that cooking would kill the bacteria, so the frozen peach dessert was most likely the cause.

Sober went to visit Mary at her new place of employment and asked for a blood sample. In a fit of temper, she chased him from the house with a fork. The second time he went to her home, she slammed the door in his face.

Calling her “a menace to the community,” Soper asked for and got help from the New York City Health Department. When City Health Inspector Dr. Josephine Baker, four police officers, and two interns knocked on her door, Mary fled through a back window, leaving footprints in the snow that led them on a three-hour chase to an outhouse. A small piece of gingham sticking out of the door gave away her hiding place.

Police pulled the cursing, fighting Mary out of the outhouse, and Dr. Baker ordered her into an ambulance. Lab tests taken later revealed that she was carrying a dangerously high level of typhoid bacteria.

Mary was sent to North Brother Island in the East River and forced to live in a small house for the next three years with only a fox terrier as company. During that period, she was under treatment and was made to submit 163 samples. Most of them came back negative, but authorities still refused to let her go.

“I never had typhoid in my life and have always been healthy,” she said. “Why should I be banished like a leper and compelled to live in solitary?”

Mary decided to sue. Rumor had it that William Randolph Hearst paid her legal fees, so he could have first crack at the story for his newspaper. She lost the case and remained in solitary for another year.

In 1910, she was released under the condition that she would never work as a cook again. Although she gave her word, she changed her name several times and went back to work. Five years later, typhoid broke out in a maternity hospital. Upon investigation, authorities found that there was a woman cooking in the hospital that looked suspiciously like Mary.

The Health Department rounded her up again and sent her back to North Brother Island. She stayed there until her death from pneumonia in 1938. An autopsy revealed live typhoid bacteria in her gallbladder.

The official count attributed to Mary Mallon was fifty-one cases with three dead. This most notorious carrier of disease went down in history as Typhoid Mary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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