Mary Mallon [foreground above] was born in Northern Ireland in 1869 but emigrated to the USA in ‘84. She worked as a cook in New York, where, within two weeks of her first employment, the residents developed typhoid fever. After this, each family for whom Mary worked invariably became ill with typhoid. Wherever Mary went outbreaks followed her. When one family she worked for rented a house in Oyster Bay for the summer, six of the eleven people in the house came down with typhoid, a disease said by local doctors to be “unusual” at that time.
Typhoid researcher George Soper was hired to investigate. He published his results saying he believed soft clams might be the source of the outbreak and that:
“It was found that the family changed cooks … about three weeks before the typhoid epidemic broke out. She remained in the family only a short time, leaving about three weeks after the outbreak occurred. The cook was described as an Irish woman about 40 years of age, tall, heavy, single. She seemed to be in perfect health.”
No one knew her whereabouts but eventually Soper traced her to an active outbreak in a Park Avenue penthouse. When Soper approached Mallon she adamantly rejected his request for urine and stool samples.
The New York City Health Department sent Dr. Sara Josephine Baker to talk to Mary but still she refused to cooperate, believing she was being persecuted because she was an immigrant. A few days later, Baker arrived at Mary’s workplace with several police officers who took her into custody. Cultures of Mary’s urine and stools, taken forcibly with the help of prison matrons, revealed that her gallbladder was teeming with typhoid salmonella. She refused to have her gallbladder extracted or to give up her occupation as cook, maintaining stubbornly that she did not carry any disease.
She was held in isolation for three years until, in 1910, she agreed that she “[was] prepared to change her occupation, and would give assurance by affidavit that she would upon her release take such hygienic precautions as would protect those with whom she came in contact”. Upon release, Mallon was given a job as a laundress, which paid lower wages, so she changed her name to Mary Brown and returned to her previous occupation as a cook. For the next five years, she went through a series of kitchens, spreading illness and death, keeping one step ahead of Soper.
In 1915, a serious epidemic of typhoid erupted among the staff of a hospital, with twenty five cases and two deaths. City health authorities investigated, learning that a portly Irish-American woman had suddenly disappeared from the kitchen help. The police tracked her to an estate on Long Island. Mary spent the rest of her life in quarantine until, aged 69, she died of pneumonia.