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Posts Tagged ‘typhoid fever’

Mary Mallon (1869-1938) was nicknamed "Typhoid Mary," and gained notoriety as history's most famous super-spreader of disease. ("Typhoid Mary," Lisa's History Room)

Yes, there really was a Typhoid Mary. She was Mary Mallon (1869-1938) an Irish immigrant who cooked for wealthy New York families. She is history’s most famous super-spreader of disease.  

Mary Mallon was first caught in 1906 when a sanitary engineer was hired to investigate a typhoid outbreak at Oyster Bay, Long Island. Six members of banker Charles Henry Warren’s household had fallen dangerously ill. Warren hired George Soper to discover the source of the contamination before the highly-contagious and deadly disease spread across the privileged enclave of Oyster Bay. (1)  Oyster Bay was the site of Sagamore Hill, known as “the Summer White House” of President Theodore Roosevelt from 1902-1908.

George Soper took his assignment very seriously. He first checked the household plumbing. He put dye in the toilet to see if it contaminated the drinking water. It didn’t.  He checked the local shellfish to see if the bay was polluted with sewage. It wasn’t. He examined the milk supply in case it was contaminated. It, too, was free of bacteria. (2)   

Next, he interviewed the staff. He found that the family had changed cooks on August 4th, when Warren had hired Mary Mallon. Shortly after Mary began as cook, Soper was informed, she had served the household a favorite dessert for Sunday dinner: ice cream topped with freshly-cut peaches

"Typhoid Mary" Mallon served homemade ice cream and freshly-cut peaches to the Warren household before six of them were sickened.

"Typhoid Mary" Mallon served homemade ice cream and freshly-cut peaches to the Warren household. ("Typhoid Mary," Lisa's History Room)

On August 27, Warren’s daughter, Margaret, fell ill with typhoid fever. Next, Mrs. Warren and two maids became ill, followed by the gardener and another of the Warrens’ daughters.  

Knowing that typhoid typically goes from exposure to outbreak in three weeks’ time, Soper had Clue #1: The epidemic had begun with the arrival of the new cook. If his suspicion was correct, Mary Mallon was a carrier who had passed on the disease when preparing the peaches with unscrubbed hands.  

Unfortunately, when Soper made this astonishing discovery, Mary no longer worked at the Warrens’. Undeterred, Soper set out to find her. Checking with her employment agency, Soper discovered a second and even more astounding truth:  Typhoid had struck seven of the last eight families Mary had worked for. Mary Mallon was spreading typhoid in her path – and she had to be stopped.

But, first, Soper had to prove scientifically that Mallon was a carrier.  

This 1883 Puck drawing shows the New York City Board of Health wielding a bottle of the disinfectant, carbolic acid, in an attempt to keep cholera at bay. Immigrants poured into New York City at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Crowded into unsanitary slums, disease ran rampant. By 1890, the era of bacteriology had arrived and scientists understood that diseases like typhoid and cholera arose from germs. Efforts were made to not just clean up the cities but isolate the disease carriers. ("Typhoid Mary," Lisa's History Room)

Mary was difficult to find, but Soper tirelessly tracked her down. Rather overzealously, he  

“confronted her in her next employer’s kitchen and asked for blood, urine, and stool samples; she swore she had never been sick and advanced on him with a carving fork. He called in the New York City health department; she threatened its doctor.  

Finally, it took five police officers and a chase over backyard fences to subdue her and get her a hospital. High levels of Salmonella typhosa bacilli were found in a stool sample. She was quarantined in a cottage on the Riverside Hospital grounds on an island in the East River.”  (1)

Mary Mallon - "Typhoid Mary" - in quarantine on North Brother Island in the East River

Mary Mallon was a medical prisoner. She had been jailed without a trial. Although she was a carrier of typhoid, she was perfectly healthy. She had been shut up in a sanitarium with tubercular patients. She had been treated like a leper.  

She sued. People felt sorry for her. Not everyone felt her imprisonment was deserved. In time, she went from Public Menace #1 to a cause célèbre.  

Part of the New York American article of June 20, 1909, which first identified Mary Mallon as "Typhoid Mary."

“Eventually, a new health commissioner decided that Mallon could be freed from quarantine if she agreed to no longer work as a cook and to take reasonable steps to prevent transmitting typhoid to others.  

 Eager to regain her freedom, Mallon accepted these terms. On February 19, 1910, Mallon agreed that she “[was] prepared to change her occupation (that of cook), and w[ould] give assurance by affidavit that she w[ould] upon her release take such hygienic precautions as w[ould] protect those with whom she c[ame] in contact, from infection.”   

She therefore was released from quarantine and returned to the mainland.” (3)  

But, alas and alack, that’s not the end of the story. For a while after her release, Mary kept her word and worked as a laundress, which paid lower wages than a cook.  It was not long afterward, though, that she adopted an assumed name – Mary Brown – and went back to work as a cook. 

In 1915, while working as a cook at New York’s Sloane Hospital for Women, she infected 25 people, one of whom died. The typhoid bacteria was traced to a pudding Mary had prepared. She was subsequently arrested and returned to quarantine on the island, where she was confined until her death in 1938.  

The cottage on North Brother Island in New York's East River where Mary Mallon, better known as "Typhoid Mary," was quarantined (1907-1910; 1915-1938).

Mary Mallon (wearing glasses) photographed with bacteriologist Emma Sherman on North Brother Island in 1931 or 1932, over 15 years after she had been quarantined there permanently. She worked at the facility and her lab coat was reported to be filthy. (Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical by Anthony Bourdain)

(1) “The Deadly Trails of Typhoid Mary,” by Donald G. McNeil, Jr. The New York Times, April 14, 2003.  

(2) “The Most Dangerous Woman in America,” NOVA, aired Oct. 12, 2004.

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British Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1861

British Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1861

Queen Victoria was devastated by the death of her husband Prince Albert in December, 1861.* She mourned him for the rest of her life, forty full years, wearing only black and virtually becoming a hermit.

The following passage describes the extreme measures the Queen took to preserve her royal consort’s memory. This scene takes place in Windsor Castle on the day after Albert has died of  (possibly) typhoid fever. Albert’s body lies in state for visitation:

On the first morning of her widowhood, she went into the Blue Room to gaze upon her beloved husband’s features. Warned by her doctors not to kiss them, she kissed his clothes instead. She had every part of the room photographed so that it could be preserved exactly as it had been at that moment of the night, ten minutes to eleven on 14 December 1861, when her own life had been shattered….

Bust of Prince Albert, Minton & Co. from the original sculpture portraits by Carlo Marochetti (1805 - 67), England, Original sculpture 1851, made 1862.

Bust of Prince Albert, Minton & Co. from the original sculpture portraits by Carlo Marochetti (1805 - 67), England, Original sculpture 1851, made 1862.

She gave orders for Albert’s dressing gown and fresh clothes to be laid each evening on his bed and for a jug of steaming hot water to be placed on his washstand. Between the two beds in the room a marble bust of him was placed; above it she had his portrait hung, wreathed with evergreens; and almost every day fresh flowers were strewn beneath it on the pillows. The glass from which he had taken his last dose of medicine was kept on the table beside it where it remained for more than forty years. On his writing table his blotting book lay open with his pen upon it as though it were waiting for him to pick up. Guests at Windsor were required to write their names in his visitors’ book as well as in the Queen’s, ‘as before’….She had herself photographed gazing up at his bust; and she went to bed each night clasping one of his nightshirts and with a cast of his hand close enough for her to touch it with her fingers. (1)

*See a related post on this blog, “Mary Lincoln Goes Goth,” and read how Queen Victoria got her notorious nickname, “Mrs. Brown.”

(1) Hibbert, Christopher. Queen Victoria: A Personal History. (New York: Basic Books, 2000)

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