Mary Mallon: the Typhoid Menace of America

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  • Topic: Mary Mallon, Typhoid fever, Asymptomatic carrier
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  • Published : April 23, 2013
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Aden Khan
Casey Aubin
History
15 January 2012
Mary Mallon: The Typhoid Menace of America
Mary Mallon was her name. She was an Irish immigrant who came to America as a teenager and made her living as a cook. She cooked for the elites; in their summer estates on Long Island or the Jersey Shore. She was an excellent cook and some of her employers praised her. Nobody knows exactly when she began to carry typhoid fever, except that it must have been during or before 1900 (Leavitt xvii). She infected people with typhoid fever through her puddings and cakes and some even died from the illness. It was then decided that she was a danger to the public and was therefore isolated. She was given the nickname, “Typhoid Mary”, and to this day that is how people remember her. However, today, there are at least three issues based on Mary Mallon’s story that can help guide us in understanding the past and maybe the future: identification of people who cause a threat to the public’s health, isolation and its threat of ruining a person’s liberty, and the blame for the spreading of the disease.

Whenever there would be typhoid fever outbreaks, it wasn’t unusual for citizens, cities, or states to hire investigators to find the source of the epidemic. Common sources of typhoid were infectious water or food supplies, but citizen themselves could fix the problem and make the environment safer again. However, one special case proved to be quite difficult. It was during the summer in 1906 ,in the rented home of Charles Warren, when typhoid fever spread to six people in the household of eleven in Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York (Leavitt 16). The homeowners, Mr. and Mrs. George Thompson then hired investigators to find the source, but they needed someone special in case their property would be unable to rent, so they hired George Soper (Leavitt 15). Soper was a civil engineer who was known for his epidemiological analyses of typhoid fever epidemics.

Soper was very specific and went through all the facts, checking who the victims communicated to what foods they ate and where they stayed. He had done a similar case before so he knew exactly what to look for. The first victims were the Warren’s daughters, then the two maids and Mrs. Warren. Soper separated everything and when nothing explained the source of the typhoid fever, Soper began to look even more closely and he found out that the family had changed cooks shortly before arriving to the summer house. Soper believed the cook, Mary Mallon, was the prime suspect but the family said she was perfectly healthy. Soper already knew that there were carriers of diseases so he decided to track Mary Mallon down. Soper had traced back Mary’s history before she arrived in Oyster Bay in 1906 and found many evidences that showed Mary was a potential typhoid carrier. Seven out of the eight families that Mary had worked for had caught the deadly fever (Leavitt 16). Twenty-two cases of typhoid were found during Mary Mallon’s employment between 1900 and 1907 and this number is quite small so this meant that many people Mary worked for were already immune to the disease or had it before. Also, during 1900 and 1907 the number of typhoid fever cases increased, and most of the cause was because of contaminated water or other sources other than carriers (Leavitt 18). Soper was convinced that Mary was the prime cause of this typhoid epidemic, but in order to prove that he needed laboratory evidence, meaning specimens of urine and feces form Mary Mallon. This was going to prove to be a very hard task, and it was.

It was in March, 1907, at Park Avenue home where Soper arrived at Mary’s home without warning and told her that she was spreading typhoid and causing deaths through her cooking (Leavitt 19). This caused the event to become very dramatic. Soper wanted samples of her feces, urine, and blood to test them in the laboratory, but of course just like any sane person would, Mary found his story bizarre, and...
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