Typhoid Mary—the Asymptomatic Cook

Updated on December 28, 2016

Some people can carry a disease while being completely unaffected by it; they are called asymptomatic carriers. They can transfer the disease to others while having no symptoms. Mary Mallon was one such person.

Mary Mallon is depicted in this 1909 illustration dropping skulls into a pan.
Mary Mallon is depicted in this 1909 illustration dropping skulls into a pan. | Source

A Vacation Gone Bad

Charles Henry Warren was a New York City banker. For the summer of 1906 he rented a home in Oyster Bay, Long Island.

At the end of August, the youngest daughter became ill with a high fever, headache, lethargy, and diarrhea. Soon, Mrs. Warren and two maids came down with a similar ailment. Then it was the turn of another daughter and the gardener.

The diagnosis was typhoid fever. But, how could that be? Typhoid was something that affected the poor who lived in filth. The Warrens were a respectable family living a luxurious lifestyle. Rich people just didn’t get typhoid and certainly not in a fashionable resort like Oyster Bay where President Theodore Roosevelt vacationed.

Investigating the Source

George Thompson, the owner of the house, brought in the health authority sleuths. The source of the contagion had to be tracked down. Having his property associated with an outbreak of disease was bad for business. No well-to-do New Yorkers would rent it again.

The usual suspects – toilet, outhouse, water supply – were tested and declared clear of pathogens. It was time to have a heavy hitter on the job. Thompson called on the services of Dr. George Soper, a sanitary engineer. The man dubbed by a newspaper “a doctor to sick cities,” began an exhaustive inspection.

The incubation period for typhoid is ten to 14 days, so Dr. Soper put on his Sherlock Holmes hat and looked at what had happened two weeks before the outbreak. In early August, the Warrens had hired a new cook, Mary Mallon, and she had left without giving notice. Suspicions were raised.

Eradicating typhoid in the days before antibiotics.
Eradicating typhoid in the days before antibiotics. | Source

The Search for Mary Mallon

Dr. Soper pursued his suspect with zeal. He checked the employment agencies through which she was hired. Later he wrote: “What do you suppose I found out? That in every household in which she had worked in the last ten years there had been an outbreak of typhoid fever.” He identified 22 victims, one of whom had died.

Dr. Soper developed the theory that somehow Mary Mallon was passing typhoid on to people along with the meals she cooked. At the time, science was just beginning to realize that typhoid might be caused by bacteria rather than “sewer gases,” which had been the prevailing theory.

The contagious Mary was tracked down to the kitchen of another New York family. To confirm his suspicions, Soper needed blood, stool, and urine samples for testing. The suggestion that Mary might want to hand these over provoked an outburst of anger followed by a chase out onto the sidewalk with the furious cook brandishing a carving fork.

For a second attempt to broach the subject of bodily samples, Soper took along a health department official and five police officers. But Mary Mallon was not going to go through indignity of surrendering her specimens without a fight. Again, we turn to Dr. Soper for a breathless account: “She came out fighting and swearing, both of which she could do with appalling efficiency and vigour.” The overwhelming manpower subdued her. “The policemen lifted her into the ambulance and I literally sat on her all the way to the hospital; it was like being in a cage with an angry lion.”

A sullen-looking Mary Mallon, nearest the camera, in hospital.
A sullen-looking Mary Mallon, nearest the camera, in hospital. | Source

Mary in Isolation

The tests were done and the typhoid bacilli found. The health authorities came down hard on Mary. She was shipped off to North Brother Island in the East River and confined to a cottage, having acquired the unflattering nickname “Typhoid Mary.” She did not take kindly to this incarceration saying she never had typhoid and writing “Why should I be banished like a leper and compelled to live in solitary confinement …?”

In 1910, she was released on a pledge never to work as a cook again.

Five years later there was an outbreak of typhoid at Manhattan’s Sloane Maternity Hospital, and who turned out to be a recently hired cook in the kitchen? Of course, it was Mary Mallon working under the alias of Mary Brown. She was traced to an apartment in Queens, but, as before, refused to go quietly. Eventually, authorities used a ladder to get into the second floor of the building and apprehend Mary.

During her first isolation there had been considerable public sympathy for Mary Mallon. However, when it was revealed she had continued to infect people that sympathy vanished. The New York Tribune opined “The chance was given to her five years ago to live in freedom” and “she deliberately elected to throw it away.”

So, it was back to North Brother Island for the contagious cook. She spent the last 23 years of her life in isolation, cooking only for herself.

Time Magazine reported that, “Putting her age at roughly 68, the obit noted that ‘while her system was loaded with typhoid germs to such an extent that some physicians referred to her as the human culture tube, it was not typhoid that caused her death,’ but the effects of a stroke she’d suffered six years earlier.”

Bonus Factoids

Once Mary Mallon’s condition became well known The New York Times called her “a veritable peripatetic breeding ground for the bacilli.”

There were other asymptomatic carriers. Tony Labella, an Italian immigrant living in New York, infected more than 100 people and caused five deaths. Yet, health authorities did not put him in isolation.

The World Health Organization says “According to the most recent estimates (published in 2014), approximately 21 million cases and 222,000 typhoid-related deaths occur annually worldwide.”

Vaccination against typhoid in 1943.
Vaccination against typhoid in 1943. | Source

Sources

  • “Typhoid Mary.” Anthony Bourdain, Bloomsbury, 2001.
  • “10 Things You May Not Know About ‘Typhoid Mary.’ ” Christopher Klein, History.com, March 27, 2015.
  • “Refusing Quarantine: Why Typhoid Mary Did It.” Jennifer Latson, Time Magazine, November 11, 2014.
  • “Typhoid Mary: Villain or Victim?” Judith Walzer Leavitt, PBS Nova, October 12, 2004.

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