The case of Typhoid Mary sparked a public health debate in early 1900s New York, and her legacy continues to be discussed to this day. March marks the 100th anniversary of Mary Mallon, an Irish cook who inadvertently infected multiple people with typhoid fever and was later placed in isolated quarantine for over 20 years of her life.
Typhoid fever is caused by a strain of Salmonella bacteria, resulting in high fever, abdominal pain and loss of appetite. Mary was a carrier of typhoid, meaning she appeared healthy but continued to carry the bacteria in her body. Her story is unique because it brought to light the conflicting priorities of public health policies and individual freedom. During that time, typhoid had no cure and was sometimes fatal. Mary is thought to have caused over seven outbreaks, 50 infections and three fatalities over a period of 15 years. What can we learn from her case? read on to find out!
Mary was an Irish immigrant to the U.S., later establishing herself as a cook for wealthy families in the New York City area. She was skilled at her job, but she was unfortunately also skilled at something else: passing on typhoid to the unsuspecting families she worked for. Typhoid is often spread by eating or drinking foods that have been handled by someone infected with the feces-shed bacteria. In Mary’s case, it was her poor hygiene that allowed her to spread the disease. However, Mary was unaware of her health status, as she had never contracted typhoid before. She would accept new employment with a family, and, when the majority of the household fell ill, she moved on to another family.