Typhoid Mary
Answer to Name This Famous Person Game - April 2015
by Mike McLeod

Mary Mallon is known far and wide by a name she probably despised and would not accept responsibility for—Typhoid Mary. Born in Ireland on Sept. 23, 1869, she emigrated to the U.S. as a teenager. Unfortunately, she eventually found employment as a cook.

The typhoid bacterium Salmonella typhi—which Mary carried—is spread by poor sanitation and poor hygiene—both of which Mary practiced. She did not believe a healthy person like herself should have to wash her hands. Consequently, illness followed her wherever she worked as a cook. Often, a family became sick a few weeks after she began cooking for them, causing her to find employment with another family.

Mary Mallon was not the most deadly carrier of typhoid. Three people died and more than 50 became ill at her hands—at least as far as is known. (Mary often dropped out of sight after leaving a sick family.) Other known carriers of the disease, all men, were responsible for more. Two men caused the deaths of seven people and the infection of more than 130.

At the late 1800s, it was only hypothesized that a healthy person could carry a disease and not develop it. Through the work of George Soper, this was eventually confirmed. Soper was hired by the owner of a resort that had experienced several cases of typhoid. Soper believed the cook was the cause, but she had left abruptly after the outbreak. With no known family, the researcher did not know where to find the cook, until he heard about the daughter of a wealthy family dying of typhoid. There he found Mary Mallon cooking again. He requested urine and fecal samples from her to see if she was a carrier, but Mary went ballistic and refused.

Soper visited her again with a colleague, but she threatened him with bodily harm. The New York Health Department then stepped in and sent Dr. Sara Josephine Baker with police to get samples and/or arrest Mary. It required her being thrown in prison to get them, and they showed Mary was a carrier.

The city placed her in isolation from society in a clinic and administered various treatments to cure her, but they proved fruitless. She continued to test positive for typhoid.

After three years, Mary appealed her incarceration and was released with the stipulation that she never work as a cook again. She agreed, was released, but did not comply.

An outbreak of typhoid at a hospital led authorities there and to Mary. This time, she spent the rest of her life, more than three decades, at the same clinic as before. She was allowed to work there, but never to cook.

The newspapers of the day gave her the infamous name of “Typhoid Mary.” Mary Mallon died on Nov. 11, 1938, never admitting that she was a carrier of typhoid.1

Mallon was correctly identified by Ted Carlton of Utah, and Sherron Lawson of Roswell, Ga.


1 Faqs.org, “Mary Mallon Biography (1869-1938).” 

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