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Typhoid Mary: How a Healthy Woman Caused an Outbreak of Deadly Illness in New York



The term "zero patient" is familiar to those who like to watch horror films or thrillers about zombie apocalypse. However, few people know that this concept was introduced after the case of Mary Mallon, an Irish cook who, being healthy, was a peddler of typhoid fever, writes

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Mary Mallon was born in 1869 in Ireland - in the county of Tyrone. Outwardly, the baby looked absolutely healthy, but researchers believe that she was infected from birth.

According to some reports, mother Mary fell ill with typhoid fever during pregnancy, but there is no evidence of this information.

The girl grew up a strong healthy child, did not complain about anything. When Mary was 15 years old, she emigrated with her family to the United States. Accustomed to a new place, the girl decided to learn the profession, instead of looking for a husband, as was customary in those years. And she began to work as a cook in wealthy families.

By 1900, the 31-year-old Mary moved to New York State. In the small town of Mamaronek, one wealthy family took her to work, but something went wrong right away. One by one, family members began to become ill. Blame Mallon no one thought: she looked completely healthy. Yes, and to poison employers did not make sense: the family paid her well. Nevertheless, local residents could not help but notice the fact that within two weeks from the moment of her arrival, patients with typhoid fever appeared in the town and panic began.

Considering this a bad sign, the Irish was expelled from the settlement.

Mary had no choice but to obey. A year later, in 1901, Mallon moved to Manhattan. Just a week later, the family the girl started working for became seriously ill. The owners suffered from diarrhea and fever, and their laundress did die. Then Mary went to work in the house of a local lawyer, but there everything went wrong. Seven out of eight family members caught typhoid fever. Mallon decided to stay in order to care for the sick, not even suspecting that her presence only aggravates the course of the disease. In a short time, typhoid fever spread outside the lawyer's home.

Help Mary was in vain, and she was forced to leave the owners. Again. In total, from 1900 to 1905, she changed jobs six times, each time leaving a mark in the form of an outbreak of typhoid fever. Often - with a fatal outcome.

In 1906, Mullon got a job as a cook in the family of New York banker Charles Henry Warren. In late summer, the family rented a house on Long Island to enjoy the last sunny days, and Mary moved there with everyone. In just a week, from August 27 to September 3, six out of eleven households (including young children) fell ill with typhoid fever. This time, Mallon decided not to portray virtue and immediately went in search of a new job.

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In the wake of death

Perhaps Mary would have continued to infect and literally kill people, if not for chance. The landlord of the Long Island home was worried about the sudden outbreak of typhoid fever. He understood that it would not be easy to turn over the mansion, and decided to figure out what became the source of the dangerous infection. To do this, the landlord hired a medical engineer, George Sopera, to conduct an investigation. By a happy coincidence, the man, among other things, was versed in typhoid fever, since he had previously worked with similar cases.

Soper enthusiastically embarked on an investigation, studied all the outbreaks of typhoid epidemic in New York State over the past few years, and drew parallels.

Very soon, he found out that all wealthy families, where a sharp incidence of a fatal disease was recorded, have one thing in common. And this is the cook Mary Mullon.

Alas, by the time Soper spotted the girl, she was already working in a new family on Park Avenue and managed to infect households: the owners' daughter died, and two of the servants were hospitalized.

George tried to convince Mary that she was a peddler of the infection, offered to be examined, but apparently didn’t choose the most suitable words (at that time in the USA Irish immigrants were pressured, they were called slum dwellers, garbage), for which the Irish attacked an uninvited guest with fists and categorically refused to take tests.

Then Soper, realizing the seriousness of the situation, was forced to contact the New York State Department of Health. A female doctor, Sarah Josephine Baker, was sent to negotiate with Mallon, but the cook did not make contact with her either. Mary assured that not so long ago she was examined by a certain pharmacist, who confirmed her good health. In those days, no one could imagine that a person who did not have obvious ailments could be a carrier of the disease ... However, the authorities clearly trusted the scientific data more than the cook said, so very soon Mallon was arrested and sent to a prison hospital.

In isolation

In the prison hospital, Mary was carefully examined and found in her gall bladder a focus of typhoid-like bacteria. Doctors suggested Mallon to have an operation to remove the bladder, but she, confident in her rightness, refused surgical intervention.

Nevertheless, during the trial, Mary admitted that she often neglected standard hygiene rules and, for example, did not wash her hands before cooking. The court considered this a weighty basis for punishment and sent Mullon for three years to quarantine on North Brother Island near New York.

Staying in isolation pissed off Mary.

She sincerely considered herself innocent, angry and wanted to get out of prison as soon as possible. On June 15, 1907, her pursuer Soper published his investigation in the JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association). It was there that the term "typhoid Mary" first appeared, which subsequently stuck to the Irish tightly.

It is not surprising that when George came to Mary on the island with a proposal to write a book about her, she simply did not talk to him. Mallon locked herself in the toilet and did not go out until Soper left. Neither persuasion nor promises of worldwide fame and good money from book sales helped.

On the island, the Irish regularly passed all the examinations, she felt good. Interestingly, the analyzes were either positive or negative.

Then Mary, oppressed by her captivity, turned to an independent laboratory, from which it was concluded that she was healthy.

Grabbing at this certificate like a straw, Mallon began to seek release.

Tired of the endless struggle with the restless patient, the doctors decided to let Mary go from the island. But not just like that: they made a promise with Mallon that she would never come to someone else's stove again and would take all possible measures so as not to infect the people around her. Mary swore an oath that she would comply with sanitary and epidemiological standards. On February 19, 1910, she was released and returned to the mainland.

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Again for the old

Returning to New York, Mary began to think what to do next. There were few options: an uneducated girl could work only as a washerwoman. Alas, washing clothes brought at times less money than cooking. Nevertheless, Mallon continued to observe all the rules of hygiene and did not remember about the cooking business.

However, working in the laundry was more like hard labor and eventually became unbearable.

Mary (like thousands of other women at the beginning of the 20th century) now and then had fractures, burns, dislocations, problems with the spine and joints. Unable to withstand the hardships of life, Mary increasingly recalled carefree times in the kitchen.

Finally, in desperation, the Irish changed her name to Mary Brown and went back to work as a cook.

Returning to her usual life, the girl seemed to completely forget all the precepts of doctors - unfortunately for the unsuspecting new owners. Mary again forgot about personal hygiene, and in order not to be caught, she often changed jobs. A plume of typhoid outbreaks crawled behind her again. This time, the police knew who to look for, but the woman’s new surname complicated the task.

Typhoid Mary was attacked only in 1915. By that time, the 46-year-old Irish came to work at the Sloan Women's Hospital, where she managed to infect at least 25 people.

Glory on the bones

On March 27 of the same year, Mary was again sent to the North Brother Island, which she knew well, but this time without the right to release her.

Typhoid Mary became a local celebrity.

Dozens of journalists came to the island to interview her, and Mallon complained to all of them that the authorities had condemned her to life alone. Mary still did not recognize herself as the peddler of the disease and refused any treatment methods. Because of this, visitors were strictly forbidden to touch the Irish and take anything from her hands.

By 1922, Mary was allowed to work as a nurse in a local laboratory, and three years later she was promoted to a laboratory assistant: now, instead of ducks, she washed tubes.

At the age of 63, Mallon had a stroke, after which she was half paralyzed. And six years later, Typhoid Mary died. From pneumonia. An autopsy showed that the gall bladder Mallon really contains a huge number of typhoid bacteria that did not touch the hostess, but created a real branch of hell on earth for those with whom she was in contact.

Because of her irresponsibility, Typhoid Mary almost gave birth to a real large-scale epidemic in New York.

No one knows the exact number of people infected with Irish. The number of dead patients is also unknown. Historians believe that hundreds of people caught an infection from Mary, of whom about 50 died. Alas, because of the statute of limitations, we can no longer establish the truth. One thing is clear: the story of Typhoid Mary teaches us that an irresponsible attitude to her health can turn into a tragedy for many.

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