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The Real Life of Mary Mallon, the Infamous Typhoid Mary

Far more than the stuff of legends, Typhoid Mary wreaked havoc on 20th-century New York City.

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  • Mallon, left, in the Riverside Hospital.Photo Credit: Public domain

Imagine being written into history as a carrier or patient zero of a deadly virus, someone who spread a horrible invisible threat that society had no fuel to combat. Mary Mallon, better known for the nickname she was given, “Typhoid Mary,” was among the first—and most virulent—asymptomatic carriers of typhoid fever, infecting dozens with the deadly virus. The tale of Typhoid Mary can be seen as cautionary, because nearly anyone might become a silent, asymptomatic carrier of a novel virus without realizing. 

Mallon was born in Ireland in 1869 and emigrated to the United States in 1884. She soon found herself donning the role of cook to eight different affluent families in New York City. Seven of the eight households contracted severe and rampant cases of typhoid fever. In June of 1904 Mallon was hired by Henry Gilsey, a major lawyer. 

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Within the first week of Mallon’s new role, Gilsey’s home became a ground zero for typhoid. Four of seven servants fell ill, and the laundress ended up dying. Perhaps telling nowadays, with our understanding of pathogens, Gilsey and his family didn’t become infected by residing in their own house, which was fully separate from the residences of the servants.

By August 1906, Mallon had moved to another residence, this time in Long Island's Oyster Bay, where a rich banker, Charles Henry Warren, was vacationing with his family. She only resided with the family over the summer. By September, more than half of the family had developed typhoid fever. 

This situation was alarming on multiple levels. The landlord who owned the Warrens' vacation home took matters into his own hands, hiring a series of experts to investigate the situation and hopefully figure out the cause of the infection. One of these experts was George Sober, a sanitary engineer with a penchant for solving particularly nefarious cases with bacterial spread and infection. Sober examined the pipes, faucets, toilets, and cesspool, taking samples, all of which showed negative results for typhoid.

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Thanks to the frustrating nature of the virus, Sober soon turned his attention to the belief that the family may have contracted typhoid from freshwater clams. It wasn’t until Sober interrogated the sick as well as the hired staff that Sober eventually found a correlation. All signs pointed to Mary. The clams weren’t the cause, because of those that had eaten them, some never developed symptoms of typhoid. But Mary… as she traveled from house to house, she continued to host the bacteria, becoming a silent super spreader, among the first identified in recorded history.

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  • A Board of Health publication explaining Mallon's predicament.

    Photo Credit: Public domain

Sober kept tabs on Mallon as she moved on to another cooking job. It became his mission to make sense of her asymptomatic status, even as she seemed to act as a deadly vector for typhoid. His attempts to retrieve samples, be they blood or urine (or feces) yielded nothing but threats from Mary, who gave chase and swore him off as an interloper. Sober tracked her previous employment history, discovering that of the eight families she worked for, seven had succumbed to the bacteria, while upwards of 22 people were infected. Sober published a report of his investigations on June 15th, 1907. 

In 1907, a reported 3,000 New Yorkers became infected by typhoid (aka Salmonella typhi). It was reported that Mary Mallon was the main reason for the outbreak. In modern day 2021, a patient zero of sorts is a fascinating and frightening concept. One person spreads the pathogen to another, only for it to spread out like a spider web quickly, even quicker in densely populated zones. 

Mary was one of the first to shock the world with such a phenomenon. Sober brought in Dr. Biggs from the NY Department of Health and Dr. Josephine Baker to help with getting Mary to take some much-needed tests. Even with a whole team of people and the police in pursuit of Mary, she managed to duck them and stay one step ahead for five years. 

Naturally, once they finally got those samples, they tested positive for S. typhi. Mallon was transferred to Riverside Hospital in North Brother Island, quarantined from the world. While quarantined, Mallon became somewhat of a lab-rat, with frequent tests administered, including the gamut of therapies and doses in hopes that they might develop a successful treatment for typhoid. 

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Mary tried suing, but was unsuccessful. Eventually she found support, a new health commissioner aiding in her release as long as she never returned to her role as a cook. She didn’t comply, though, and returned to the role, further jeopardizing the health of thousands. 

Working at Sloane Maternity in Manhattan, she managed to infect more than 25 doctors, nurses, and staff. She used different aliases to skirt her status as the one and only Mary Mallon, super spreader, including names like Mary Brown. This illusory and infamous disregard for the health of others resulted in the namesake that stuck, “Typhoid Mary.”

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  • A poster explaining how typhoid may be passed.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

It wouldn’t take long to once again secure Mallon in another stint of quarantine. She remained in quarantine on North Brother Island until her death in 1932. She was found on the floor of her bungalow, paralyzed, the effects of a stroke. Six years later, she died in November 1938 at Riverside Hospital. 

A postmortem autopsy revealed that Mallon's gallstones shed S. typhi. Years ago, she had been pressed to have her gallstones removed, but she refused, as she could not believe that such an operation would make a difference. Of course, some report that there was no autopsy. 

Typhoid Mary had become a bit of an urban legend, even within her lifetime. Her death proved to expedite the story of the super spreader, the name Typhoid Mary committed to countless articles, academic studies, and medical textbooks. Mallon spent 30 years in isolation, and likely endured countless stress and dread while being chased by the authorities. When all was said and done, her denial of being a vector resulted in a stain on medical history, and a tale of just how little control we have over the invisible pathogens just waiting to infect someone and become the next pandemic.