March 27, 1915: Typhoid Mary Imprisoned for Life!

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A Brief History

On March 27, 1915, the woman history has come to know as Typhoid Mary was placed into involuntary quarantine for the rest of her life!  It seems long before the “corona virus” pandemic of 2020, humans have been dealing with rampant diseases, plagues, epidemics and pandemics throughout history.  One of the most notorious cases concerned a deadly disease, Typhoid Fever, and a woman known as “Typhoid Mary.”

Digging Deeper

Mary Mallon was born in Ireland and moved to the US at age 15.  She moved from job to job, mostly working as a cook and everywhere she worked people would get sick and sometimes die.  In 1906, one of the families sickened with Typhoid Fever hired a private investigator who discovered the common factor in several Typhoid outbreaks.  That factor was Mary!

Now that Mary was identified she was asked to provide medical samples for testing but would not cooperate.  In 1907, a squad of police officers arrested Mary and took her to jail.  Medical samples were forcibly taken, and doctors found her gall bladder to be overrun with salmonella bacteria of the type that causes Typhoid.  Mary told investigators that as a cook she rarely washed her hands as she thought it served no purpose.  She also insisted that she was not infected with a disease and refused to give up working as a cook!

A historical poster warning against acting like Typhoid Mary

Now called Typhoid Mary, Mary was taken to North Brother Island, New York, and held in quarantine for 3 years.  In 1910 after signing a pledge to avoid working as a cook and to engage in rigorous sanitary practices, Mary was released back into society.  That, as they say, was a mistake!

Mary Mallon (foreground) in a hospital bed during her first quarantine

Mary changed her name and soon went back to work as a cook and the illnesses started again.  For the next five years Mary went from job to job and it was hard for investigators to track her down. After causing a Typhoid epidemic at a New York hospital she was cooking for, police were hot on her trail and finally caught up with her on Long Island.

Mary was arrested and taken back to North Brother Island where she was held in quarantine for the rest of her life. Being somewhat famous, Mary was visited by reporters but only under stringent standards of hygiene.  In 1932, Mary suffered paralysis from a stroke and died at age 69 in 1938.  An autopsy confirmed her gall bladder was still infested with the Typhoid salmonella bacteria.  Not surprisingly, her body was cremated.

Along with the dozens or scores of people sickened by contact with Mary, at least 3 positively died from her proximity. There may well have been over 50 deaths because of her stubborn insistence that she could not possibly be the cause of spreading the deadly disease and her refusal to maintain proper hygiene.

Researchers have since found other cases of people carrying the Typhoid germs inside them without themselves getting any symptoms of illness, but spreading the disease to others.  The reason you see all those “Employees Must Wash Hands Before Returning to Work” signs in the bathrooms of restaurants and other businesses is to prevent exactly this sort of disease spreading.

Question for students (and subscribers): Do you know of any cases where a specific person spread a disease or illness?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

Hand cleaning station at the entrance of the Toronto General Hospital

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Bourdain, Anthony. Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical. Bloomsbury USA, 2010.

Morley, Jacqueline and David Salariya. You Wouldn’t Want to Meet Typhoid Mary! Franklin Watts, 2013.

The featured image in this article, an illustration that appeared in 1909 in The New York American, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1925, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.