Mary Mallon was born in 1869 in Cookstown, Co Tyrone. She emigrated from Ireland to the United States in 1884.
Mallon became the focus of one of the best-known episodes in the history of communicable disease when U.S. health officials identified her as a healthy carrier of the organism causing typhoid fever. Mallon, who refused to acknowledge her role in spreading the disease as a cook, is known to have infected at least 53 people, resulting in three deaths. Unable to stop her from cooking for others, New York City authorities confined her for 26 years on North Brother Island in the East River.
Prior to Mallon, authorities including Robert Koch and Walter Reed had speculated that the disease might be spread by carriers who transmitted typhoid bacteria even though they looked and felt perfectly well. Mallon became the first healthy carrier to be positively identified by U.S. health officials, when she was tracked down by George Soper, an epidemiologist and sanitary engineer from the New York City Department of Health.
Soper was hired by the owner of a summer retreat at Oyster Bay, Long Island, to investigate a typhoid outbreak there during the summer of 1906. Six cases of typhoid had developed among 11 members of the household of a visiting New York banker, and the retreat owner was concerned his property might not be rented again unless the source was exposed and eliminated.
Soper’s investigation led to Mallon, who had been hired as cook 23 days before the first typhoid case materialized at Oyster Bay. She had left shortly after the outbreak began. Tracing Mallon through her employment agency, Soper found that she had cooked for seven other wealthy families, six of whom were afflicted by typhoid around the time of her employment.
Soper finally caught up with Mallon in an affluent household on Manhattan’s Park Avenue, where an only daughter was critically ill with typhoid and a laundress had been hospitalized with the disease. Encountering Mallon in the kitchen, Soper explained his investigation and asked for samples of her urine, blood, and feces. Mallon responded with a sharp kitchen instrument.
When a subsequent visit by Soper and a medical colleague only pushed Mallon into another rage, the City Department of Health dispatched Sara Josephine Baker, a female physician who visited with a group of New York City policemen. Mallon lunged at the visitors with a long kitchen fork and fled to a nearby shed, where she was arrested and taken to hospital in an ambulance, kicking, screaming, and biting, with Baker sitting on her chest.
Mallon’s feces repeatedly tested positive for typhoid bacteria and various medical treatments did not eliminate them. Soper tried unsuccessfully to persuade the cook to have her gallbladder removed, an operation that sometimes halted production of the bacteria but was considered a high risk at the time.
Mallon subsequently was sent to the Riverside Hospital for communicable diseases on North Brother Island. The New York press learned of her case and dubbed her “Typhoid Mary” in sensational articles, one of which was accompanied by a drawing showing her cracking human skulls onto a grill.
After two years at North Brother Island, Mallon applied to a judge to be released, describing her involuntary confinement as “unjust, outrageous, uncivilized,” and complaining that she was “treated like an outcast a criminal” eventhough she was charged with no crime.
The fact that Mallon was healthy was a new twist on existing quarantine practices, but the judge ruled in 1909 that she was a menace to public health and that health officials had a right to confine her. However, the following year, a New York health commissioner agreed to release Mallon on her promise to refrain from cooking or handling food for others. The terms of release required her to report to health officials every three months, but Mallon disappeared.
She was finally located in 1915 at New York’s Sloane Hospital for Women, where she was working in the kitchen under the assumed name of Mary Brown. An outbreak of typhoid cases had occurred among the nursing staff there and coworkers had jokingly taken to calling her “Typhoid Mary,” never suspecting that she was the infamous Mary Mallon they had read about in the newspapers.
She returned to the hospital on North Brother Island, where a special cottage was built for her in 1923. In her long years of life quarantine there, Mallon never admitted her status as a typhoid carrier. She did, however, become more compliant and was allowed to work at Riverside Hospital as a laboratory technician and even to visit friends in Manhattan and Queens.
On Christmas Day, 1932, Mallon suffered a stroke, which left her paralyzed until her death from bronchopneumonia six years later. Her funeral, held in a spacious church in the Bronx, was attended by nine people. Apparently still doubtful that a typhoid carrier could be free of symptoms, the doctor who filled out her death certificate wrongly listed typhoid as a contributing factor in her death.