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Typhoid Mary

vdonely's picture


In the year 1906 at Oyster Bay, Long Island there was an outbreak of typhoid fever. This puzzled health officials who thought they had put an end to this deadly disease years before, however upon further examination it was concluded that the daughter of Charles Henry Warren did have typhoid fever. Because of the ease with which typhoid is spread, five more people came down with symptoms that same week--Mrs. Warren, another daughter, two maids, and the gardener. Authorities were dumbfounded. They tested the water supply, dairy products, the outhouse, and much more with no results. Finally, Dr. George Soper, a sanitary engineer, was called in. He soon realized that the Warrens had just recently hired a new cook, who was now missing! He knew this had to be the missing link and he went on a man-hunt for Mary Mallon, the Warren’s cook. She was described as being very unclean and Soper knew it must be the right woman.
            After much investigation, he did find her. He ordered a sample of her feces to be taken and tested for typhoid. The test came back positive. Upon further research, Soper found that Mary had infected quite a number of people in her career as a cook, most of whom had died. The infection was spread so easily because she never washed her hands and she was a very dirty woman. She was sent to a remote island, almost like a captive. From this point on, Mary became infamous. She was commonly known as Typhoid Mary to the public and became the butt of all jokes. After a few years, when people started to forget about her, she was released. At this point, she could not get a high-profile job as a cook so she looked around for any odd end cooking jobs she could find. She ended up finding a few jobs, but still did not feel the need to wash her hands. More people came down with typhoid and she was sent back to her island where she eventually died.
            It is hard to believe that a cook could be so dirty and disgusting. She could not help that she was a carrier of typhoid, but she could have at least made the proper provisions for it. To be a cook and never wash one’s hands leaves me with a sick feeling. Coming from a poor family, Mary was obviously never taught the value of hygiene. If she was, many lives would have been saved. After reading this book I am going to sanitize my own hands a lot more. I have a better understanding now of how easily germs are spread, especially the deadly ones.
            It is a bit scary to read about Mary and realize that she, at first, did not even realize she was a carrier of typhoid. It makes me wonder if I or anyone I know is carrying anything so dangerous inside. That is why it is so important to stay clean. That way there will be a slim to none chance of catching or giving anyone a disease. It is vital to stay clean for oneself, simply for health reasons, but it also keeps one from spreading his or her own germs and bacteria.
            I believe this book demonstrates well what I have learned this past semester. Through evolution, I have realized we are all connected in some way. In Typhoid Mary all of her victims were connected through her and her disease. Mary spread herself around through her cooking and now every one of her victims has a little piece of Typhoid Mary in them.


Paul Grobstein's picture

the complexity of infectious disease

"The conflict between competing priorities of civil liberties and public health will not disappear, but we can work toward developing public health guidelines that recognize and respect the situation and point of view of individual sufferers."  ... Julia Leavitt, Villain or Victim?

Sounds like, as with all things biological, the complexity of "we are all connected" precludes simple attributions of causality/blame.