The Passion Of Typhoid Mary


Longfellow notwithstanding, precious few of us leave footprints in the sands of time. Even today, while our names will probably remain, buried in such things as old phone books and Social Security records, most of us will be utterly and forever forgotten within a generation or two of our deaths. Like it or not, only the great and the infamous are remembered.

Every now and then, however, an ordinary person somehow slips by the bouncer outside the nightclub of immortality and joins his betters inside. Perhaps my favorites in this category are A, B, C, D, and E. They were the typesetters who set the First Folio of Shakespeare, printed in 1623. In the centuries since, scholars have pored over each page of it with such intensity that they have discerned their existence and were able to determine which of the five set which page by their characteristic spellings and typos.

So we do not know their names or where they lived or whom they loved or what made them laugh. We know only what words they had trouble spelling. That’s enough, however. Centuries after their deaths, hundreds of thousands of readers of American Heritage are thinking about them for a moment this month, and they are not forgotten. Shakespeare, it seems, was righter than even he knew when he wrote, “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this and this gives life to thee.”

Her friends visited her, but they always went away and left her alone during dinnertime

Last year’s food-poisoning episode at Jack in the Box restaurants brings to mind another person who falls into this category. She lived in New York City at the turn of the century and made her living as a “good plain cook.” In this case we know her name, Mary Mallon. But she is immortal as Typhoid Mary.

Food poisoning is the nightmare of the restaurant business. It can’t be insured against. It can strike in even the best-run establishments. And the results, for restaurant and patron alike, are all too often fatal. Employees who fail to practice proper procedures, and thus pass microorganisms from themselves to diners, are a far more common cause of food-poisoning outbreaks than is tainted meat. Of the many diseases that can be communicated in this way, typhoid fever is one of the most serious.

Typhoid was recognized as a separate disease in the early nineteenth century, and the organism that causes it, one of the dreaded Salmonella genus, was isolated in the 1880s. Characterized by a high and extended fever and numerous possible complications, the disease had a death rate before antibiotics of 10 to 15 percent. The main means by which typhoid spread in the nineteenth century was contaminated drinking water, and as clean water became ever more available, the incidence of the disease declined. Still, in 1900 about twenty thousand Americans died of typhoid.

Intriguingly, typhoid often broke out in groups of people who were associated with a single location, and where the water was not contaminated. Because of this, those working in the dawning science of epidemiology suspected that some people might be chronic carriers of the disease. Although having no symptoms themselves, they harbored the bacillus and shed it constantly. While this seemed a likely theory, no one had ever identified an actual chronic carrier. It remained a theory.

In the summer of 1906 typhoid struck a house in Oyster Bay, on Long Island’s North Shore, rented to a New York banker named William Henry Warren. Of the four family members and their seven servants living in the house, six came down with the disease. The local public health authorities investigated but failed to pinpoint the cause of the outbreak. The owner of the house, however, feared he would never be able to rent it again unless the cause was found. So he hired George A. Soper, a sanitary engineer by training but a gifted epidemiologist by instinct.

Soper zeroed in immediately on the servants, especially the cook, Mary Mallon, who had arrived in the household on August 4, three weeks before the first typhoid case had appeared. That is exactly the average incubation period for the disease. He learned that she often made a dessert that was a great hit with the family, ice cream with fresh peaches mixed in. It was, as it happens, a near-perfect medium for transmitting typhoid.

Soper then went to the agency in New York through which the cook had been hired. He obtained a list of other cooking jobs she had held, and sure enough typhoid had erupted at most of them shortly after she arrived. At her latest situation, a house on Park Avenue at Sixtieth Street, there were already two cases of typhoid, one a little girl who would shortly succumb. Soper knew in his heart that he had found a typhoid carrier. He went to see Mary Mallon, hoping to enlist her cooperation. He didn’t get it.

The traditional image of Typhoid Mary is of a slattern, ignorant, unkempt, and uncaring of others. The truth is rather different. Mary Mallon was about forty years old at that time, with blonde hair and clear, intense blue eyes and a “determined mouth and jaw.” She stood about five feet six and had a good figure, although she was rather plump, a common enough failing among professional cooks.