Published on July 14, 2020

How Typhoid Mary cooked up deadly infections

By Edward A. Forbes / The Bulletin

Amid the pandemic and behavioral restrictions and recommendations, it is hard to find anything humorous in our new reality.

Homeschooling has provided a myriad of comedic references and images. Social distancing has found its place in the world of satire, sarcasm, and cartoon. “But wait, there’s more,” I cry. Have you ever heard of “Typhoid Mary” (Mary Mallon)?

Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant. She made her living as a cook initially in private residences. The families had various members fall ill with typhoid during her time of service. It took investigators some time to isolate her as the source of infection.

Numerous factors contributed to her spreading the disease. The germ theory was just coming into acceptance, and hand washing was an important concept of that theory. Another factor was that she never accepted the fact that she was a carrier of typhoid, because she never felt ill herself.

She has three confirmed deaths linked to her, but as she changed aliases often, it is difficult to prove the 50 deaths they believe were linked to her.

Mary was placed in mandatory quarantine twice. The first quarantine ended after 2 years 11 months on the provision she would no longer work as a cook but seek employment as a laundress (at less than half the pay she received as a cook).

She obeyed the employment restriction for about five years and then began seeking employment as a cook (again using aliases). Agencies would not place her in private residences, so she began cooking in public establishments.

Typhoid cases occurred that were linked to her employment, but she began changing places of employment frequently under different aliases. She was finally found when she started cooking at The Sloan Hospital for Women - 25 cases tipped off the authorities.

She spent 23 years in quarantine after this. A compassionate doctor employed her to wash and clean laboratory equipment during the latter part of that time. She never believed she was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid.

The key here is asymptomatic carrier.

Conspiracy theorists, civil libertarians and nonbelievers, who rebel at wearing face masks and practicing social distancing, are walking that same path of denial that Typhoid Mary did. Think for a moment - for every unwitting person who is exposed, how many do they infect?

Is it really such a sacrifice to wear face masks, wash your hands and social distance? Please think not just of yourself but of your loved ones, friends, and people you bump into on the streets. If all would follow these guidelines, we would not have to endure shutdowns, and isn’t that something we can all agree on?

Love thy neighbor.

(Edward Forbes wants to hear from you. Email him at eforbes1946@gmail.com or send comments by snail mail to The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX. 77516.)