Remembering Typhoid “I don’t wash my hands” Mary

Sunde White illustrates her essay about Typhoid Mary

Fresh Peach Ice Cream is my specialty!

Since I’ve been in quarantine I have thought a lot about the gross and tragic story of Typhoid Mary.  She was the first person identified as an asymptomatic carrier of Typhoid Fever in the early 1900’s, a disease that causes fever, weakness, abdominal pain, a rash and sometimes death.  A vaccine was created in the 1940’s, saving thousands of lives but in the early 1900’s it was considered deadly.

It was common for poor people to contract the disease since it is carried in human feces and they often had poor sanitation and little access to clean water.  So in 1900 people were pretty shocked when a bunch of rich people in the Hamptons and Manhattan came down with it that summer.

Turns out, wealthy families in that area had hired a pretty Irish immigrant named Mary Mallon to cook in their homes.  Where ever Mary worked, Typhoid Fever followed her.  Within a couple weeks of her being hired, the family she was cooking for would come down with the disease.  In one household the laundry lady died.

She went from house to house for years, leaving cramps, fever and diarrhea in her wake.  In 1906, she was working in Oyster Bay, Long Island serving up her fresh peach ice cream and other goodies that she made with her unwashed hands on hot summer days.  Each family that she worked for came down with Typhoid Fever within a few weeks.

One of the infected families hired a typhoid researcher named George Soper.  He traced it back to Mary who had already fled Oyster Bay and was working for a family on Park Ave in Manhattan that, surprise!, was in the middle of an outbreak that led to the hospitalization of two servants and the death of the family’s daughter.

Soper confronted her but she did not believe that she had anything to do with all the outbreaks.  In her defense, this was at a time that average people knew nothing about invisible bacteria that could kill people and I picture the uneducated Irish woman, just trying to make a living as a cook, being incredulous when she was blamed for an outbreak of a disease that she herself never suffered from.  Also, there was incredible prejudice of Irish immigrants and this accusation reflected the stereotype that the Irish were dirty so she may have felt that she was being persecuted unfairly.

The New York State Commissioner of Health explained being a carrier to her, ordering her to wash her hands if she insisted on being a cook but she was like, “My hands are fine, why don’t you go wash your hands, thank you very much.” So they put her in jail and let her out only after she promised to not be a cook anymore.

Upon her release in 1910, she immediately took a job as a cook and went about sickening family after family again until she got busted for her biggest Typhoid outbreak at the Sloane Hospital for Women in NYC.  She infected 25 people, two of whom died.  Enough was enough.  She was arrested and held in quarantine for the rest of her life in a hospital on North Brother Island in NYC .

In total she made over 50 people sick and killed three.  What can we learn from ol’ Typhoid Mary?  You can carry a deadly disease without knowing it and WASH YOUR HANDS!







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