Today, the H1N1 virus is in the news all over America. The common theme is the value of washing our hands after using the restroom as the single-most effective method of preventing the disease. There is at least one other disease that is spread primarily by unwashed hands.
Going back over one-hundred years, in the early 1900s, there was an epidemic of typhoid, mostly in the New York City area. However, this case was different. At the time, typhoid was mostly contracted by the poor due to their unsanitary living conditions. This epidemic was different in that most of the people that came down with it came from the upper-class. City health officials were puzzled and it took lots of detective work to find the common thread. Enter Mary Mallon.
Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant. She was a cook in a house in Mamaroneck, New York, for less than two weeks in 1900 when the family came down with Typhoid. She moved to employment in Manhattan, and members of that family developed fevers and diarrhea, and the laundress died. Next, she went to work for a lawyer, and seven of the eight household members developed typhoid. Mary spent months helping to care for the people she made sick, but of course the contact made them worse. As it turned out, Mary was a carrier of the disease, but never was ill with Typhoid herself.
In 1904, she took another position on Long Island. Within two weeks, four of the ten family members were hospitalized with typhoid. She changed employment three more times and all three households were infected.
In 1906, the outbreak of cases of typhoid in New York attracted the suspicion of Dr. George Soper. He discovered that the common element was an unmarried, heavyset Irish cook, about forty years old. No one knew her whereabouts. After each case she left and gave no forwarding address. Dr Soper traced her to an active outbreak in a Park Avenue penthouse. Two servants were hospitalized and the daughter of the family died.
Soper interviewed Mary, and suggested there might be a connection between the dishes she served and the outbreaks of Typhoid. She cursed at him. He requested a stool sample, and she threatened him with a meat cleaver. Finally, police and the New York health commissioner arrested her. She went kicking and screaming.
Authorities labeled her public health enemy number one and confined her to a cottage in the Bronx, where she lived and ate alone. She was effectively imprisoned without trial. She worked at Riverside Hospital as a laundress, swearing that she was the victim of a government conspiracy.
In 1910, promising to remain a laundress and never return to cooking, Mary was released. She changed her name to Mary Brown and got a job as a cook. For the next five years, she went through a series of kitchens, spreading illness and death, keeping one step ahead of the frustrated Dr. Soper.
In 1915, a serious epidemic of typhoid erupted among the staff of New York's Sloan Hospital for Women, with twenty five cases and two deaths. City health authorities investigated, learning that a portly Irish-American woman had suddenly disappeared from the kitchen help. The police tracked her to an estate on Long Island. This time she went meekly.
Mary was quarantined for life on North Brother Island. She became something of a celebrity, and was interviewed by journalists. She died in 1938 of pneumonia. The autopsy revealed that her gallbladder was still actively shedding typhoid bacilli. She was buried by the Department of Health at Saint Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx. But her reputation lives on.
History has given Mary Mallon the name Typhoid Mary.