Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans

Irish Cross Memorial New Orleans
The Celtic Cross Memorial in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Adrian McGrath. Click the image for the story about the cross.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Typhoid Mary: The Sad Case of an Asymptomatic Irish Immigrant

"Typhoid Mary" Mary Mallon
in the front hospital bed (Wikipedia)

By Adrian McGrath

Dangerous diseases are in the news nowadays. People isolate, take many precautions, and sadly some get sick and even die. Others go into quarantine.

A similar, though much smaller scale, medical scare happened a century ago in New York. It has parallels to today, and it was important also because of the asymptomatic nature of the case. It involved an Irish immigrant.

She came from Cookstown, County Tyrone, in the north of Ireland. Born in 1869 she came to America when in her early teens in 1884. It is probable she had typhoid from birth as her mother had the infection when pregnant. 

Her name was Mary Mallon, and she lived at first with her aunt and uncle.  Later she worked in the New York City area as a maid until she developed into a cook. Her career advanced as she worked as a house cook for wealthy families.

But there was a problem. At the homes of the well-to-do where she worked, people kept getting sick. Eventually, it is believed that she infected more than 50 people. Three of these unfortunate souls died from the illness. 

Mary Mallon went from job to job, and people kept getting sick. The ill people would have a high fever, stomach pain, head pains, and might become nausiated and vomit. A skin rash might develop. These symptoms might last for weeks and become worse. Pneumonia and intestinal bleeding might also occur. 

The disease was called typhoid fever or typhoid (not to be confused with typhus). The disease was spread by bacteria often resulting from unclean or unsanitary conditions. Simple washing of the hands could have reduced the problem, but medical science in those days did not fully realize this. 

A poster originally from the New York American
from 1909 depicting Mary cooking and spreading 
typhoid fever. (Photo from and Wikimedia)

It is probable, at least at first, that Mary did not realize that she was the source of the problem. She had the disease, but she did not understand it. She was asymptomatic, which meant she carried the illness but had no outward signs of it. She was in fact the very first, diagnosed, asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever in the United States. 

Mary was ostensibly healthy, yet inside of her was Salmonella typhi.

Eventually the authorities caught up with her and concluded she was the source of the problem. She was quarantined and let go after agreeing to be more hygenic and change her occupation. 

She went from cook to laundry worker. She did this agreeably, but she later changed back to cooking after an injury. Cooking also paid much more than laundry work or being a maid. With her injury and limited job skills, cooking was the work Mary relied on to earn a living.

However, now she began to work in public places rather than in homes of the rich. She worked in restaurants, hotels, and even at a hospital. She used false names and worked as a cook against health officials' orders.

Then as the illness spread, she was discovered and quarantined again by the authorities. So twice quarantined, her life was a nightmare. 

Mary was sent again to a place called North Brother Island in The Bronx in New York. She stayed there for over 25 years in total. 

It was said she had no friends or relatives left to console her, and she found peace only in her religious beliefs. 

She died almost alone, except for the medical staff, in 1938. 

Mary Mallon was cremated. Her ashes are buried at St. Raymond's Cemetery on North Brother Island.

The press covered the story and gave her the nickname "Typhoid Mary."

Typhoid fever was eventually treated with the use of antibiotics which can destroy Salmonella. A British scientist also developed a vaccine in 1896 which was successful.

North Brother Island, East River
The Bronx, New York
(Photo by US Coast Guard and Wikimedia)

North Brother Island,The Bronx,
New York, 1906 (Wikipedia)

Sources and further reading: See about North Brother Island
the poster of Mary is from and Wikimedia; Photo of lighthouse North Brother Island

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