Terrible Typhoid Mary

I recently read Terrible Typhoid Mary by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, just as voraciously as I consumed Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map (about a cholera outbreak in London in 1854 which I reviewed here). I make the comparison here, because both books give us a snapshot of how city officials, doctors and citizens were dealing with contagious disease during a budding time of medical experimentation and progress. And also because these diseases are in some ways similar…

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Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant, moving to New York City in 1883. She was employed as a cook for rich families, and was considered a clean and hardworking woman. However, in the families she worked for, cases of typhoid commonly arose…

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Typhoid is caused by bacteria that multiplies in the intestine after a hapless victim consumes food or water tainted with an infected individual’s waste. It comes with a dangerously high fever, extreme fatigue, terrible headaches and rashes, and an ailing intestine. It is a very serious disease…

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Mary Mallon was a silent carrier of typhoid. In rare cases, someone who has had the disease can continue to populate the bacteria and pass it on to others, long after they’ve gotten well again. Most survivors of the disease stop reproducing the bacteria after a span of time. In Mary’s specific case, she had no recollection of ever even having typhoid in her life. Most likely, she’d beaten a bad fever at some point in her youth, never knowing what she’d had…

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Worse still, she was employed as a cook. All it might take was one poor hand washing after using the water closet, and then prepping food in the kitchen, to pass typhoid on…

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In reading this retelling of history, I found myself both feeling sad for Mary, but also angry. When the connection was made that she might be a carrier, she refused to believe it or even speak with doctors sent to help her situation. She put up fierce fights, fled the scenes, changed her name. And partly, we can understand. At this time, experimental cures and unjust incarcerations were rampant. As far as she was concerned, she’d never had this disease and was not the cause of the cases coming down in the houses she worked for…

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On the other hand, she was made a fair offer. Change your profession and your freedom will remain your own. What did Mary do? She hid her identity and went to work as a cook in a women’s hospital. You can imagine the inevitable outcome. 25 people were struck with typhoid in this case, two died. She was caught and placed into permanent isolation…

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This book also gives us a snapshot into news tactics of the time. To sell papers, larger than life (and often false) stories were premiered. Mary was made a villain while men who were silent carriers and infected crowds were wholly ignored in the news. Presumably, this was because she was a cook, and as a woman, was expected to be utterly caring of others. This story also gives insight into how medical authorities dealt with (often poorly), odd situations such as Mary’s and how it impacted a patient’s freedom, spirit and health. (I certainly took a fright to how they tried to cure Mary of her typhoid. Eeek!)…

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I can hardly give this story justice here however. Therefore, I entreat you to read Terrible Typhoid Mary for yourself if you have any interest in medicine, city health and planning, late 19th/early 20th century American history, or the truly wild details surrounding one poor Mary Mallon!