Monday, March 1, 2010


Yes, Gentle Readers, there really was a Typhoid Mary.

Her name was Mary Mallon, and she was an Irish immigrant.

She worked her way up in the U.S. household staff hierarchy to become a cook. Unfortunately, she carried typhoid bacteria, even though she was healthy, and caused more than 50 cases of typhoid and three deaths.

Mary Mallon came to the attention of the New York Health Dept. when a typhoid researcher traced cases of typhoid among some well-to-do families and discovered something each family had in common.

They had employed Mary Mallon as a cook.

Mallon denied ever having had typhoid, but she may have had a mild case that left her with the bacteria in her body, or perhaps she was infected when her mother had typhoid while pregnant with her. At any rate, the New York Health Dept. hauled Mary off kicking and screaming to test her for the bacteria and there it be! Then they quarantined her on an island with other people who had highly infectious diseases, and she lived in a little cottage by herself.

Typhoid is spread through feces and ingested with food or liquid and causes a high fever, quite often a rash, a host of other symptoms, and sometimes death. Typhoid spreads best where sanitary conditions are poor and it still exists in third world countries where access to antibiotics can be difficult. It kills one out of one hundred people who come down with it. Prior to the advent of antibiotics, typhoid killed one out of ten infected people.

The bacteria can be eradicated by high temperatures, i.e. food that is cooked, but can remain present in uncooked foods, including Mary Mallon's popular peach ice cream. Working as a cook, Mary would have handled food constantly and even if she washed her hands after using the bathroom, she probably could not have washed them thoroughly enough to get rid of the bacteria.

After three years in quarantine, Mary Mallon was released on the condition that she not work as a cook. Unfortunately, the Health Dept. got her a job as a laundress, one of the suckiest and worst-paying jobs in America. Eventually, Mary called herself Mary Brown and went back to cooking.

When a typhoid outbreak occurred at a hospital where she was cooking, Mary was once again quarantined, and this time, for the rest of her life. Active typhoid bacteria could still be found in her body after her death from pneumonia in 1938. She spent a total of 29 years in quarantine.

Some people still believe Mary killed thousands of people. Her name certainly became synonymous with the spreading of disease. In reality, she became an example of a healthy, albeit stubborn person who could be a carrier of a disease. She never believed that she spread typhoid and she couldn't be trusted to give up cooking. Some other typhoid carriers were also identified, but nobody was quarantined unto death the way Mary was.

And it was all because she worked her way up to being a cook.


Dumped First Wife

Typhoid Mary is now used to describe someone who opens computer attachments without knowing the source and then passes the virus in the attachment on to other people. A Typhoid Mary also refuses to uses anti-virus software.

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