Encyclopedia Womannica

Best Of: Mary Mallon

Episode Summary

Mary Mallon (1869-1938) became inadvertently and tragically famous as the first person identified as an asymptomatic carrier in a typhoid outbreak.

Episode Notes

All month, we're revisiting our favorite episodes.  Tune in to hear the highlights of Womannicans past!

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Local Legends, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Grace Lynch, Maddy Foley, Brittany Martinez, Edie Allard and Lindsey Kratochwill. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Carmen Borca-Carrillo, Taylor Williamson, Ale Tejeda, and Sundus Hassan.

We are offering free ad space on Wonder Media Network shows to organizations working towards social justice. For more information, please email Jenny at jenny@wondermedianetwork.com.

Follow Wonder Media Network:

Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s Local Legend is of particular interest in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic. An Irish immigrant who made a life for herself in New York City, she became inadvertently and tragically famous as the first person identified as an asymptomatic carrier in a typhoid outbreak. Let’s talk about Mary Mallon, better known as “Typhoid Mary.”

Mary Mallon was born in 1869 in County Tyrone, Ireland. Very little is definitively known about her early years or her family. 

When Mary was 14 or 15 years old, she, like many of her fellow countrymen at the time, emigrated to the United States in pursuit of better opportunities. 

By 1900, six years after her arrival, Mary had found steady employment and earned a decent paycheck working as a cook in the homes of some of New York City’s wealthiest citizens.

This was no small feat. At the turn of the century, millions of Americans worked in domestic service, and the job of cook was the top of the food chain. Because it was a highly coveted, skilled position with management duties over other kitchen staff and supplies, the cook was generally the best paid and most respected member of the household staff. 

Between 1900 and 1906, Mary worked for seven different families in their homes in New York City or on Long Island where many wealthy New Yorkers spent their summers. Mary was considered an excellent cook and was especially known for her signature dish of peach ice cream. What she may or may not have noticed was the pattern of people getting sick around her. In each of the homes where she worked, people either became very ill or died around the time of her employment. 

In the summer of 1906, Mary was working at the Oyster Bay summer home of New York City banker Charles Henry Warren. From August 27th to September 3rd, 6 out of the 11 people staying at the house became very ill with typhoid fever. Typhoid was a somewhat surprising culprit. Typhoid is is spread through contaminated food and water and had a fatality rate of 10% at the time. It was usually found in overcrowded, underfunded sections of cities with unsanitary conditions, not in fancy summer homes of the wealthy.  

A sanitation engineer named George Soper was hired to track down the cause of the outbreak. At first, Soper was convinced that the illness was caused by the consumption of freshwater clams. He then landed on the possibility that Mary herself could be the disease host, meaning that she was unknowingly shedding the disease and infecting those around her, even though she didn’t appear ill. Though doctors and scientists had been discussing the existence of asymptomatic disease carriers since the 1880s, this was still considered a fairly wild idea. Soper was the first to describe a healthy carrier of typhoid in the United States. 

By the time Soper came to this conclusion, Mary had already moved on to another household. Starting in March 1907, Soper began stalking Mary in an effort to collect blood, stool, and urine samples from her to test for the bacteria that causes typhoid. For his efforts, Mary chased him off multiple times with a carving fork, evidently upset. For Mary, who had limited knowledge of the latest advances in science and medicine, this was all very confusing. How could she be spreading a disease that she had never even experienced herself? It sounded impossible.

 Once Mary was identified as an asymptomatic carrier, the New York Department of Health had to step in. In 1907, there was no immunization available for typhoid nor was there really treatment available for people who got sick. The only real option for doctors desperately looking to stop the spread was to place the carrier in quarantine. Mary was quickly exiled to an isolation facility once used for smallpox on North Brother Island in the East River. She was confined there for two years.   

Mary was livid over her forced confinement and what she saw as an infringement of her rights. Part of the problem may have been that none of her doctors or New York health officials tried to explain to Mary in any meaningful way what the significance was of being a carrier. They offered to remove her gallbladder, which some of her doctors believed might be the source of the shedding bacteria, but without a clear understanding of what was being offered, Mary refused. The doctors tried to treat her with a variety of substances, including laxatives, Urotropin, and brewer’s yeast, all to no avail. 

In 1909, Mary unsuccessfully sued the New York Department of Health over her belief that it was unjust to treat her as a pariah when she hadn’t purposefully done anything wrong.

In 1910, a new Health Commissioner for New York City took up Mary’s case. He promised to release her from her confinement and help her find employment as long she promised to never work in the handling of food again, since contaminated food and water were -- and are -- primary vehicles for typhoid spread. 

Mary found a job as a laundry maid, but it was tough work for much less pay than she was used to as a cook. It wasn’t long before Mary began working in kitchens again under a variety of assumed names to make ends meet. 

Four years later a typhoid epidemic broke out at both a sanatorium in Newfoundland, New Jersey, and at Sloane Maternity Hospital in New York City. It was quickly discovered that Mary had been working as a cook at both facilities. In three months time, at least 25 people came down with typhoid at Sloane Maternity alone. Two of them subsequently died. 

The authorities eventually tracked Mary down at a suburban home in Westchester County and sent her back to confinement on North Brother Island. She remained there until her death in November 1938. 

For much of her life, and certainly since her death, Mary was stigmatized as “Typhoid Mary.” For years, her name appeared in medical dictionaries as a disease carrier, and it’s still used today as a colloquial term for somebody who callously spreads disease or evil. While her isolation eventually became a public health necessity, Mary’s story raises a lot of complex questions about what happens when personal autonomy is pitted against public health. As Mary once wrote to her attorney:

“I have been in fact a peep show for everybody. Even the interns had to come to see me and ask about the facts already known to the whole wide world. The tuberculosis men would say ‘There she is, the kidnapped woman.”

All month, we’re talking about Local Legends. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our newsletter, Womannica Weekly. Follow us on facebook and instagram @encyclopediawomannica.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!