by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
March 13, 2007
THE LEGACY OF TYPHOID MARY: 'BOIL IT, COOK IT, PEEL IT, OR FORGET IT'
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- Now, what does that title have to do with what I planned? I usually write about something or someone Irish this time of year, not the bywords of the CDC (Center of Disease Control). As it turns out, my original plan is right on target:
Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant from County Tyrone, arrived here
in 1883 and by 1907, hers was a household name. Perhaps not known as
Mary Mallon, but as Typhoid Mary, and the poor unfortunate girl made
history. She was the first healthy carrier of typhoid fever in the
Mary was only 15 when she arrived at Ellis Island and settled in with others like herself. The girls usually found work as domestic servants and Mary, with a talent for cooking, earned better wages than the others. It was no surprise when she hired on as cook to a wealthy family summering in Oyster Bay, Long Island.
One of the daughters in the family came down with the dreaded typhoid fever; her symptoms progressed from fever to diarrhea to lethargy and severe headache. Before the summer was over, six others among the family and staff came down with it. When three doctors shared the conclusion it was typhoid, public officials entered the picture.
Around the turn of the century the pubic officials had determined clean water was essential to health and well being and when efforts were made in that direction, cases were fewer.
What could be the cause? Could it be soft clams? No, after careful study they decided to focus on the residents.
The family hired a sanitary engineer to analyze anything and everything. The man's name was George Soper and he later published his findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association, June 15, 1907: "it was found that the family had changed cooks on August 4. This was about three weeks before the typhoid epidemic broke out ... She remained in the family only a short time, leaving about three weeks after the outbreak occurred ... The cook was described as an Irish woman about 40 years of age, tall, heavy, single. She seemed in perfect health."
The story of how Soper tracked her down is sordid at best, criminal at the least - but that's from today's point of view. She was working as a cook on Park Avenue and wouldn't cooperate by offering stool samples for analysis. She was dragged off kicking, yelling, fighting her way out of what was happening, but in the end she was forced to give the health officials what they wanted. Indeed, her system did show high concentrations of typhoid.
Mary was healthy and would remain so forevermore but she was a carrier. She was moved to a cottage - an isolation cottage - and although she screamed that she was not a leper, she spent three years there on the grounds of Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island. The island is right between the Bronx and Rikers Island. And that's New York!
Poor Mary. She was there for three years; she was released and after changing her name to Mary Brown, she first worked doing laundry for poor wages, then got a job using the name Mrs. Brown at Sloane Maternity Hospital in New York City. After three months and two deaths from typhoid, they traced the cause of typhoid's spread to 25 doctors and assorted staff members to Mary Mallon.
She was apprehended, sent back to Brother's Island and stayed there for 23 years before dying of pneumonia. Poor Mary, indeed.
Her story is tragic; much like the stories of the American citizens of Japanese descent who were detained for the duration of World War II because their ancestry caused a possible threat to us at war with Japan.
Things are done for the good of us all. But, some things in retrospect are hard to believe.
In our own century, just a hundred years later, we are faced with a similar outbreak of typhoid. Oh, you didn't know that typhoid was salmonella? Well it is one and the same bacteria that caused a recent nationwide recall of Peter Pan Peanut Butter from the supermarket shelves across the nation.
Contamination remains the same: It is spread through human contact and human feces carrying the bacteria. Unwashed hands? Most probably. Typhoid is "bacteria salmonella typhi." Salmonella and Typhoid are one and the same.
Mary died in 1938 and a newspaper made note of the fact there were 237 others who lived under observation of the city health officials.
Mary Mallon was the only carrier of the bacteria who was isolated for years and it is said she was more a victim of prejudice against the Irish than a carrier of a public threat in carrying a dreaded disease.
Her story is most interesting because it talks of misguided action; the kind that says "we meant well." Not good enough.
I feel sorry for the family Mary cooked for; I feel sorry for the ones who this year consumed a delicious lunch of Peter Pan Peanut Butter on the bread of their choice. But, I feel more sorry for the corporate losers who trusted their employees to wash their hands. Such a simple thing. The bacteria is spread from human to human and sometimes animals to humans - the preventive measure being attention to cleanliness. What could be easier?
A lovely Irish colleen arrived on our shores looking for the land of milk and honey after a generation of poverty and famine in her native land. She became a scourge and an outcast before she died in our midst. Whether its Typhoid Mary or Peter Pan, the bacteria will do us in. Is there a lesson? Of course. It's posted in every lavatory in our nation. "Employees must wash hands before returning to work."
In Mary's case, the luck of the Irish wasn't lucky enough.