Mary Mallon

Mary Typhoid

These last weeks we have heard a lot about “healthy carriers” who can spread the virus without showing symptoms and, therefore, without knowing it. Among the healthy carriers, one of the most famous cases is Mary Mallon, better known as “Mary Typhoid”, do you know her story?

Mary Mallon was born in Ireland in 1869 and emigrated to the United States around 1883. In the summer of 1906 she was hired as a cook by a wealthy family in New York. During that summer, family members and visitors became ill with typhoid fever, a disease that at the time had a mortality rate of about 10% (an antibiotic treatment was not available until 1948). To find the cause, the family hired George Sober, who through his research and months of investigation identified Mary as the source of the infections. Even more, people in other houses where she had served had also been infected. Mary resisted being tested, but finally the New York City Health Department was able to confirm that she was positive for Salmonella typhi and she was quarantined on North Brother Island at Riverside Hospital. She was there for three years. In 1910 Mary was released from quarantine on the promise that she would never work as a cook again (and that she would wash her hands frequently). She did not keep her promise and returned to work as a cook, this time in a maternity ward. Twenty-five people were directly infected and two of them died. Mary was again placed in quarantine, where she remained until her death 23 years later. At the time of her death, more than 400 healthy carriers of Salmonella typhi had been identified in New York, but no others were forced into confinement.

Thus, the complex relationship between public health needs and Mary’s stubbornness gave her an uncomfortable place in medical history. In the face of current uncertainty about our status as healthy carriers, let’s keep the measures to limit the viral spread, to take care for each other.

Ref: Ann Gastroenterol 2013; 26 (2): 132-134