The Scandalous Typhoid Mary
In 1907, Mary Mallon was working as a household cook when an inspector named
George Soper knocked on her employer’s door. Soper explained to Mary that he
represented the New York City Department of Health. He believed she was a carrier of
typhoid and had caused many people to become sick; some had even died. Mallon
retorted that she felt healthy. She cursed at this intrusive man, who insisted on collecting
blood and urine and stool samples, and she advanced toward him with a carving knife.
Soper fled the scene, but the epidemiologist soon pursued Mallon again with the aid of an
assistant. The two men followed her to a friend’s tenement house. Again enraged, she
frightened the men away. Their next strategy of sending a female doctor was also met
with resistance. In the end, the doctor reappeared with police officers, more assistants,
and an ambulance. Mallon lunged at her visitors with a kitchen fork and ran away, only to
be discovered hours later when her dress poked through a closet door. The resistant Mary
Mallon was carted off to a hospital with one aid sitting on her chest!
At the hospital, suspicions of Mallon’s typhoid carrier status was confirmed. To avoid
contaminating other people, health officials banished her to a cottage on a hospital island
in New York’s East River. (The property had been designed years ago to quarantine
Had Mallon known that she was infecting people with typhoid? During her employment
as a cook on Long Island that summer, eleven people in her household came down with
typhoid fever. An investigator researching her employment history found that typhoid
outbreaks coincided with most of her previous jobs. Between 1900 and 1907, she had
taken seven jobs and apparently infected 22 people. Sufferers endured about a month of
high fever, upset stomach, headache, and rash. One girl died of fever shortly after Mallon
came to work her family.
Still, Mallon claimed to believe she was unfairly accused. She said she didn’t understand
how she could be related to all the sickness surrounding her when she herself seemed
healthy. In 1909 – after spending two years on the island -- she sued the health
department, saying that stool samples she’d sent to a private lab tested negative.
However, the judge ruled in favor of the government, who countered her claim with a
series of mostly positive tests. Mallon was returned to the quarantine island with only a
dog for companionship.
Better news came for Mary Mallon in 1910 when a new health commissioner reached a
different decision: Mallon would be set free, provided that she did not work as a cook and
promised to always take hygienic precautions. Mallon agreed and next found
employment laundering clothing. The terms of her release required her reporting to health
officials every three months.
For some reason, however, Mallon did not report to authorities as instructed. She
eventually went back to working as a cook! Perhaps she could not survive on lower
wages. Maybe she didn’t believe that a healthy person could really infect people, or
maybe she had malicious intentions all along.
In any case, five years after her release from the island, New York's Sloane Hospital for
Women suffered a typhoid fever outbreak that resulted in two deaths. Co-workers joked
that Typhoid Mary worked among them, but nobody suspected this was truly the case.
Investigators turned to a newly-hired cook who called herself Mrs. Brown. Sure enough –
Mrs. Brown was the infamous Mary Mallon!
Mallon was sent once again to the North Brother Island cottage. There she lived for
twenty-three more years. She did not live in total isolation; she helped around the hospital
and by 1925 was assisting in the hospital’s lab. She was even allowed to visit friends off
of the island. In 1932 she suffered a paralyzing stroke. Mallon was then transferred to a
ward of the hospital and there remained until her death six years later.