Typhoid Mary and Women’s History Month

Kinda gets ya in the old gazebo, don’t it?

On 27 March 1915, Typhoid Mary (Mary Mallon) was quarantined for life on North Brother Island in the East River between the Bronx and Riker’s Island. In the fifteen years previous, she had worked for as many as a dozen different jobs as a private home cook, and in all but one of those families people sickened and died, whereupon she left and took another job.  She was thought to be responsible for as many as 22 cases of typhoid and three deaths from typhoid in the metropolitan New York area.  The problem at the time was that:

  1. She was always asymptomatic;
  2. Despite her profession as a cook, she didn’t understand the need for basic hygiene, like washing hands;
  3. She consistently refused to believe that she was the problem and refused to change professions;
  4. Neither the public health profession nor the medical profession had ever seen an asymptomatic carrier of disease.

When she was detained in 1907 for studies the medical profession, led by typhoid researcher George Sopher, proved that she was carrying the bacillus and showed her the proof, she refused to believe it.  But in 1910 the health authorities had no power to detain her or any other disease carrier and she was released after she agreed to no longer work as a cook. She kept her word only briefly, and was back in the kitchen by 1911. Three more families sickened and some members died, and she kept leaving.  Finally, in 1915, Mallon was arrested and quarantined for the rest of her life.  Until her death in 1938 at the age of 69, she refused to believe that the bacilli she carried in her gallbladder was responsible for all those cases of typhoid.

This week ends Women’t History Month, which has been proclaimed annually by American presidents since 1988. Canada has marked it since 1992; Australia since 2000. Each year has a different theme, and each year we are graced with some dramatic entertainments made especially to commemorate the role of women in our history; so many that I have stopped looking for them.  And each year the overdrawn and painfully inaccurate films are relegated to the dustbins. That this month includes such events as the incarceration of Typhoid Mary, Anne Boleyn’s beheading, the death of Elizabeth I, the founding of Girl Scouts USA and the Camp Fire Girls, the seating of Jeanette Rankin in the US House of Representatives, and Helen Keller meeting Anne Sullivan. Diversity, thy name is woman.


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