Monday, October 19, 2009

(The Infamous Typhoid Mary)

In general, I like to think of celebrities as someone whose life is worth celebrating, but in the case below, I can only say her life is worth remembering!)

I was watching a documentary on television one day about Mary Mallon, called “Typhoid Mary” during the early 1900's in New York. She was a 40-year-old cook infected with the bacteria who never became ill herself. Yet she traveled from household to household, unknowingly infecting others with it. Many people got sick, some died. One wealthy woman whose family members had died became so afraid of return­ing to her own house that she hired a doctor to play detective and he eventually began to suspect and to track down this cook. She changed jobs frequently, making it a big detective job to find her. Once found, being uneducated or otherwise difficult to convince, she hollered furiously that she wasn't even sick and angrily rushed at the doctor with a huge kitchen fork. She was a very large woman, used to working hard, almost masculine in strength, and the doctor ran like hell. Event­ually the police accompanied a female doctor and they all wrestled Mary into a police van where the doctor had to sit on the woman all the way to the hospital.

When Mary Mallon's blood and specimens were checked, they found Typhus, as they had expected. She was now a prisoner, even though in a hospital. All the while, she was hollering like one of our own modern-day criminals that she “knew her rights”, that she was being held without just cause, etc. There had been great public outrage against her when her story was first published, but after she'd been imprisoned for some time, some people began to take up for her and to insist that she couldn't just be locked up like that. At the time, there was no legal precedent for quarantining an apparently healthy person. Appeals were made and rejected. At length, however, some judge finally figured they couldn't imprison her forever and released her on the absolute condi­tion that she find some employment other than as a cook. She tried that, but she couldn't make a living and finally she stubbornly returned to cooking under assumed names. Within a few years, the same kinds of outbreaks occurred and the same kind of investi­ga­tion led the health authorities to her again. Again, she fought the police with all possible physical force! She ended up being imprisoned for the rest of her life, some 23 years, on one of the islands established in New York harbor for quarantine purposes.

The impression was given in the documentary that, within the parameters of her confinement, the health department tried to be kind to the woman. She was given a small bungalow of her own to live in. After a long time, she was allowed to go on day-visits to the city as long as she returned before night. She was allowed to work in the clinics and make a little money. She apparently stopped complaining, though it wasn't clear if she ever got it through her head that she really was a carrier of Typhoid fever. One elderly woman who had been a young nurse at the insti­tu­tion said on camera that she remembered one day when Mary offered her a big beautiful apple as a present, but only after energetically rubbing her big hands all over it as if to polish it. The nurse knew perfectly well who she was and she wasn't about to eat it! She accepted it and threw it away when she was out of Mary's presence.

Mary Mallon eventually had a stroke and lay incapacitated for a good while before she died, still on the grounds of the quarantine hospital. Only nine people attended her church funeral. That's not so bad, really, for a woman who had more than once been a threat to the entire population of New York City.

1 comment:

  1. That was interesting, Ron. I'd not heard of Mary before. Typhoid, thankfully, is a thing of the past, at least in Europe and the USA. We can count that as a blessing - the state of health care here being as it is.


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