This is perhaps the most interesting of all epidemics. A disease that can be attributed to a single person, and the outbreak can be controlled by quarantining the person.
Mary Mallon was born in Ireland in the year 1869. She immigrated to the United States and came to New York City. She lived with her aunt and uncle for sometime before finding a gainful employment as a cook in affluent homes.
Mary was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid germs and believed in her innocence. She was cooking for seven affluent families in Long Island, New York. Long Island was a place where the rich lived, away from infectious diseases and dirt that surrounded the penurious areas of New York. Mary, the 37- year- old woman was a tall, strong built woman. In the ten years that she worked as a cook for eight families, six of the families got sick with typhoid.
It was only when the rich banker Charles Warren (banker to Vanderbilts) and his family got sick, Charles started to wonder. Typhoid was the disease of the muck, mire and miserables. Typhoid was not customary amidst the wealthy. It took George Soper, a typhoid researcher detective to trace down the disease to Mary. He had interviewed every member of the Warren household and still could not ascribe the source of the plague. He then asked a pertinent question- “has the household interacted with anyone in the last 21 days?” Yes, there was Mary the cook who had cooked for the family on their vacation. She cooked for them temporarily and three weeks had gone by since the family had interacted with her. It does take three weeks for the typhoid bacteria to show the symptoms of the disease. Sopher was delighted. He had a clue.
It was difficult to track Mary. Soper ultimately found her working in another wealthy household. Soper told Mary that he believed she was the carrier of the disease. Mary was furious. She didn’t believe she was spreading the disease. She had never been sick in her entire life. Yes, she was an asymptomatic carrier. She was livid, and ordered Soper to get out of her kitchen. But, when this family also was indisposed, Soper knew he was on the right course. It is believed that he tracked down all the households Mary worked for, and it was found that Mary indeed had sickened the families she worked for.
He got the public health officials involved, and Mary was put in isolation/quarantine. She was in a quarantine for a year. She was released with a clause that she couldn’t work as a cook anymore. She started to work at a laundromat. She detested her time working at the laundromat because she was paid much less. Mary still didn’t believe she was a danger to the individuals she cooked for, so she changed her name and restarted her work as a cook. She started to work as a cook in moneyed households.
As soon as the families started to fall sick, she quickly left the family that she was employed with and found a job elsewhere under a different alias. She worked in houses, hotels, restaurants and sickened a number of people.
Finally Soper tracked her down and she was put in a forced quarantine for 23 years. In March of 1907 the newspaper headlines read ““a typhoid carrier and a menace to the community.” – she had become famous nationally.
Typhoid is a disease caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi and can be treated by antibiotics. At the time of Mary Mallon, there wasn’t a known cure for the infection. Typhoid is passed on through drinking water and contaminated food. It thrived in areas and homes where hygiene was questionable.