Friday, February 19, 2010

February 19, 1910-Typhoid Mary Mallon gains her (short-lived) freedom

1909 Newspaper Article
Wikimedia Commons

As we near the end of the winter of the Swine Flu we are reminded of another time in history, before vaccines and antibiotics, when the rapid spread of disease struck fear in the hearts of the population of New York.

In the summer of 1906, New York banker Charles Henry Warren took his family on vacation to Oyster Bay Long Island. He rented a summer home from George Thompson and his wife and looked forward to rest and relaxation in one of the most beautiful vacation spots in America. Being quite well of the family could afford to hire their own private cook for the trip and Warren and his wife hired Mary Mallon a 37 year old Irish domestic who had emigrated to the States when she was about fifteen.

On August 27, one of the Warren's daughters became ill with typhoid fever. Soon, Mrs. Warren and two maids became ill; followed by the gardener and another Warren daughter. In total, six of the eleven people in the house came down with typhoid.

Since the common way typhoid spread was through water or food sources, the owners of the home feared they would not be able to rent the property again without first discovering the source of the outbreak. The Thompsons first hired investigators to find the cause, but they were unsuccessful.

Then the Thompsons hired George Soper, a civil engineer with experience in typhoid fever outbreaks. It was Soper who believed the recently hired cook, Mary Mallon, was the cause. Mallon had left the Warren's approximately three weeks after the outbreak. Soper began to research her employment history for more clues.

Soper was able to trace Mallon's employment history back to 1900. He found that typhoid outbreaks had followed Mallon from job to job. From 1900 to 1907, Soper found that Mallon had worked at seven jobs in which 22 people had become ill, including one young girl who died, with typhoid fever shortly after Mallon had come to work for them.

Marry Mallon in North Brother Hospital Bed
Wikimedia Commons

Convinced that Mary was the source of these typhoid cases he approached her to see if she would co-operate and allow for the analysis of a stool specimen. Insulted and probably frightened, Mary refused to co-operate, twice threatening Soper with a knife. Eventually, New York Public Health Officials had to "capture" Mary and take her, against her will, to Willard Parker Hospital.

Tests at the hospital revealed Mary to be the first healthy carrier of typhoid fever in the United States. Upon discovering this the health department transferred Mallon to an isolated cottage (part of the Riverside Hospital) on North Brother Island (in the East River near the Bronx).

Mary was taken against her will and essentially imprisoned because she was a carrier of a disease that could kill others who came into contact with the food she was preparing. The incident created a myriad of moral and ethical questions for the health care professionals in the city at the time. There was a charter in place allowing for the quarantine of sick people but to imprison someone who was healthy seemed wrong.

In 1909, after having been isolated for two years on North Brother Island, Mallon sued the health department. But the judge in the case ruled in favor of the health officials and Mallon, now popularly known as "Typhoid Mary," "was remanded to the custody of the Board of Health of the City of New York." Mallon went back to the isolated cottage on North Brother Island with little hope of being released.

In February of 1910, a new health commissioner decided that Mallon could go free as long as she agreed never to work as a cook again. Anxious to regain her freedom, Mallon accepted the conditions. On February 19, 1910, Mary Mallon signed an affidavit stating that she "is prepared to change her occupation (that of cook), and will give assurance that she will upon her release take such hygienic precautions as will protect those with whom she comes in contact, from infection." She was let free.

In early 1915, twenty-five people became ill with typhoid at the Sloane maternity hospital. When workers noticed a resemblance of a cook, Mary Brown, to earlier photos of Typhoid Mary, it was found that Mary had taken a job as a cook at the hospital breaking her agreement with the Public Health Department.

Mallon was again sent to North Brother Island to live in the same isolated cottage that she had inhabited during her last confinement. For twenty-three more years, Mary Mallon remained imprisoned on the island. She would remain at North Brother until her death from complications of a stroke in 1938. An autopsy showed she still was still a carrier at the time of her death.

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