Thursday, November 02, 2006

Typhoid Mary

Mary Mallon was born in Ireland in 1869 and immigrated to the United States alone in 1883.

Mary worked as a cook in New York City between 1900 and 1907. During this time, she infected 22 people, of whom one died. Mary was a cook in a house in New York, for less than two weeks in 1900 when the residents came down with typhoid. She moved to Manhattan in 1901, and members of that family 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 1904, she took a position on Long Island. Within two weeks, four of ten family members were hospitalized with typhoid. She changed employment again, and three more households were infected. Often, the disease was transmitted by a signature dessert she prepared: peaches and ice cream.

George Soper was a sanitary engineer hired by the landlord of a house where Mary had worked. After careful investigation, he identified Mary as a possible carrier. He approached her with the news that she was possibly spreading typhoid. She violently rejected his request for urine and stool samples, and Soper left, later publishing his findings in the June 15, 1907 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Soper brought a doctor with him on his next contact with Mallon, but was again turned away.

Mallon's denials that she was a carrier were based in part on the diagnosis of a reputable chemist; he found she was not harboring the germs. While she was merely in temporary remission, the diagnosis contributed to Mallon's refusal to accept the allegations. 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 was generally tactless in his dealings with her. (During a later encounter in the hospital, he told Mallon 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. Josephine Baker to talk to Mallon, but, "by that time she was convinced that the law was wantonly persecuting her when she had done nothing wrong."

A few days later, Baker arrived at her 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 Sloan Hospital; two of those infected died. Public health authorities again seized her and confined Mary Mallon in quarantine 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 (not typhoid) after a stroke six years earlier which left her paralysed.[2] However, an autopsy found evidence of live typhoid bacteria in her gallbladder. Her body was cremated in Saint Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx.

Part of the problems Mary had stemmed from her vehement denial of the situation. She maintained that 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, a 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. Business writers also use the term to describe individuals who are able to thrive on high levels of stress, but who "pass on" stress to work colleagues who are more likely to suffer from its effects.

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