The Tragic Tale of the Typhoid Marys

I’ve noticed with the recent Rona situation, how the broader sense of health and wellbeing (freedom, mental wellbeing, human connections, socialising, enjoying our families, experiencing happiness and hope and purpose) has been cast aside for a very restricted definition of ‘health’ (presence or absence of a certain pathogen, or presence or absence of a certain set of symptoms), and how destructive it really is.

It wasn’t all that long ago, when testing positive for a certain pathogen (whether you displayed symptoms or not) was enough to have your freedoms removed, and spend the rest of your days in misery…all in the name of public health

The most famous, of course, was ‘Typhoid Mary’.

Mary Mallon (1869 – 1938) arrived in America as a penniless 15-year-old Irish immigrant. She loved to cook, and she was good at it, too – that’s how she came to be working for affluent families.

Typhoid typically struck the poor and dirty parts of town, so when it struck the well-to-do family that Mary had been working for, they hired a sleuth to investigate – one George Soper.

When Mr Soper turned up at Mary’s door, demanding she give him samples of her urine and feces, Mary did what any respectable lady would do, under the circumstances – she chased him away with a meat fork! [1].

Soper, however, was undeterred. He went to the city health board, with his suspicions that Mary was an ‘asymptomatic carrier’ of typhoid. When Mr Soper returned with the police, Mary hid for five hours, before they finally discovered her hiding place, and hauled her off to the hospital to be tested. When her test returned positive, she was sent to Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island. She was there for 2 years, before she was allowed back into society, on the promise that she would not work as a cook.

During that time, Mary was forced to provide 163 samples of various bodily substances, in order to be tested. One hundred and twenty of those tested positive. Doctors pressured her to have her gallbladder surgically removed – Mary refused [2].

Mary went to work as a laundry maid. But the pay was poor and she missed cooking…and she didn’t really believe she was carrying diseases, when she seemed perfectly healthy. So she changed her name, and got a job in the kitchen at Sloane Maternity hospital. When a typhoid outbreak occurred there, she was discovered, and sent back to North Brother Island, where she stayed for the next 25 years, until her death in 1938.

Mary became infamous, the butt-end of jokes and cartoons, and an object of fear, in the media. At the time, approximately 1000 people per year in New York were diagnosed with typhoid – but they were mostly poor. Mary’s alleged victims were all rich, and perhaps that, along with the fact that she was an immigrant woman, is why Mary got the treatment she did? [3]

They blamed Mary for the death of three people, and sickness in dozens more, although by the time she died, hundreds of other ‘asymptomatic carriers’ had been discovered in the US, although, none were quarantined.

Numerous US newspapers ran stories in 1954, stating that “known carriers are kept under strict surveillance by the Public Health Officials and are visited at least twice yearly.  

None, under any circumstances, are permitted to work commercially with milk or other foods. Members of the carrier’s household are advised to be vaccinated, and annual booster shots are given (to the carrier) for additional protection.

All known typhoid carriers are listed in the State Registry so that, among other things, occupation and residence can be frequently checked upon by investigators. Owing to the instruction and supervision given, carriers usually prevent no menace to the community or household.

No drug yet found will rid the carrier’s body of the germs. However, since they frequently localize in the gallbladder or kidney, surgical removal of these organs frequently clears up the infection. Where both kidneys are infected, such an operation is, of course, impossible” [4].

Meanwhile, in the UK, it turns out that many ‘Typhoid Mary’s’ had their lives shattered because they tested positive for a particular germ…

IN 2008, BBC News broke the story, that at least 43 women ‘typhoid carriers’ had been locked up in Long Grove Asylum, Epsom, between 1907, and 1992, when it finally closed.

All were from the London area, and none displayed symptoms of typhoid. By all accounts, these women were mentally stable when admitted to the asylum, but years of living in isolation had affected them mentally (hardly surprising), and so their continued confinement was considered justified, even after the advent of antibiotic treatment for typhoid, in the 1950’s.

The Isolation Unit closed in 1972, and all but two of the women were moved into open wards in the asylum. The remaining two women were ‘incurable’ typhoid carriers, and were confined to two separate small rooms, where they lived out their days, with just the daily paper and a small tv as company.

This information came to light only because historians uncovered two volumes of records in the ruins. Most of the records from the asylum were (conveniently) destroyed after it shut down. [5]

Two women were still alive, when the asylum closed in 1992. They were transferred to other institutions. One woman, Rosina Bryans, had spent 60yrs of her life in confinement.

Staff don’t recall any of the women ever having visitors, despite many of them having been married with children, before being admitted [6].

In memory of Mary Allouis, A Brice, Mary Brooks, Rosina Bryans, Johannah Buckland, Lillian Buzzi, Martha Caunt, Lilian Clark, Marguerite Cross, R Cross, Mrs Davies, Elizabeth Driver, Ella Eves, Jane Caroline Finn alias Jackson, Charlotte Forward, Jennie French, Henrietta Victoria, Florence Fortune Greenhalf, Mabel Hardwick, Ellen Jones, Nellie Keylock, Maud Powell, Rebecca Restall, A Redson, Sarah Reynolds, Edith Rhodes, Charlotte Rock, Elsie Stacey, Bridget Tallott, Rose Thacker, Maud Louise Thomas, Ada Elizabeth Thompson, Emily Titcombe, Florence Elizabeth Truman, Margaret Vanderpant, Lily Wade, Margaret Warren, Ada Caroline Wellington, Marie Westlake, Sarah Whall, Ivy Whitmey-Smith, Emma Munnings, Florence Pell [7].

References:

[1] Latson J, Refusing Quarantine: Why Mary Did It, TIME, 11th November, 2014, Quarantine History: Who Was Typhoid Mary and What Happened to Her? | Time

[2] Inglis-Arkell E, What The City of New York Did to Typhoid Mary Was Pretty Horrific, Gizmodo, 25th December 2014, What the City of New York Did to “Typhoid Mary” Was Pretty Horrific (gizmodo.com)

[3] Brockell G. Yes, There Really Was a Typhoid Mary, an Asymptomatic Carrier Who Infected Her Patrons, The Washington Post, 18th March, 2020, ‘Typhoid Mary’: The true story of Irish cook who infected her patrons – The Washington Post

[4] Gilbert R.O, Your Health, South Pasadena Review, 10th August, 1954, page 4.

[5] Tyhoid Women Were Kept in Asylum, BBC News, 28th July, 2008, BBC NEWS | UK | Typhoid women were kept in asylum

[6] Hale B. The British Women Typhoid Carriers Who Were Locked Up For Life in a Mental Asylum, Until the 1990’s, Daily Mail, 29th July, 2008.

[7] Life Sentence, BBC Radio, 28th July, 2008, BBC – Today


(Visited 26 times, 1 visits today)