Typhoid Mary’s Exile

One of New York City’s many small islands quarantined Mary Mallon, against her will, in the early 1900s

By Carrie Peyton Dahlberg

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Ruins of the Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island. (By relvax, Wikimedia Commons)

Today, vines snake through crumbling walls, and bricks topple unpredictably from the ruined medical buildings on North Brother Island. Conservation crews visit sporadically, hacking through kudzu and poison ivy. Sometimes, herons nest on the 13-acre speck of land in the East River. No tourists are allowed. The few authorized visitors come back with videos and photos of ragged melancholy—fitting images for an ugly episode in public health.

In 1938, after pleading with lawyers, after being deprived of her livelihood, after being allowed to leave, after then being hauled back and held for decades, an Irish cook named Mary Mallon died of pneumonia on North Brother Island. Then and now, she was better known as “Typhoid Mary.”

photo of typhoid maryThe epithet has nearly supplanted the woman. Born in 1869, Mallon was an Irish immigrant who worked her way up to the relatively well-paying job of cook. She fed the wealthy. Her employers left Manhattan to summer in Maine or Long Island, bringing small retinues of laundresses, butlers and cooks. Records of the typhoid outbreaks that followed Mallon capture something of those summer idles. In one household, seven servants tended to the needs of four family members. In another, five servants cared for a family of four.

A sanitary engineer named George Soper, familiar with then-novel medical research into healthy carriers of disease, suspected Mallon. He accosted her in 1907, demanding samples of her blood, urine and feces. She declined. Soper persuaded New York City’s health department to force Mallon. It took three police officers, two interns, and a doctor who sat on her during the ambulance ride. Mallon protested, then and for the rest of her life, that she was healthy and could not possibly be giving anyone typhoid fever. But tests showed she was infected with Salmonella typhi, which could cause a raging fever that then killed about 10 percent of those stricken.

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Mary Mallon in quarantine. (Wikimedia Commons)

That began the first of Mallon’s long quarantines on North Brother Island, in a small bungalow on the grounds of the island’s Riverside Hospital for Communicable Diseases. She was held there from 1907 to until 1910 despite vigorous rounds of letter writing and legal appeals. Then she was freed—with a promise not to cook again. That was a promise she did not keep. In 1915, during a typhoid outbreak at the Sloan Maternity Hospital in New York City, Mallon was found cooking there. She was taken back to North Brother and held there for the rest of her life. Perhaps she adjusted somewhat to the captivity, because in time she was given a job in the lab and allowed to leave occasionally to visit friends. Although many other healthy carriers of typhoid fever were later detected, Mallon was the only one forcibly detained by public health officials.

“If Mary Mallon had not been an impoverished Irish immigrant, things would have played out differently,” said Philip Alcabes of Hunter College and author of “Dread,” a book on epidemics. “Typhoid Mary was a sort of poster girl … to raise consciousness about a continued threat. She was convenient – poor and Irish and a cook.” While the myth that has come down with her name is one of an incorrigible spreader of disease, Alcabes sees Mallon as someone yanked from the life she had struggled to build and ordered to give up her only means of making a decent living. “I wish that people looked at the Typhoid Mary incident as an example of a failure to treat a complex problem,” he said.

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