June 20, 1909 in New York City…
The New York American newspaper coined the term “Typhoid Mary” to describe an Irish immigrant named Mary Mallon who had been sent away to North Brother Island.
Mary was the first identified asymptomatic carrier of the bacteria that causes Typhoid. She claimed that she had never had Typhoid and she was in good health, but she was spreading the disease everywhere she went.
Typhoid is caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi. The bacteria is spread through contaminated food and water. It lives in the intestines and bloodstream and is passed on when another person comes in contact with the feces of an infected person. Symptoms of Typhoid include stomach pain, diarrhea and headaches. The patient develops a rash and runs a very high fever.
Studies show that up to 6 percent of people who have been infected with Typhoid and survive become carriers. It seems that Mary may have contracted Typhoid and quickly gotten over it. She probably associated the symptoms with another disease.
Mary was born September 23, 1869 in Ireland and immigrated to the United States in her teens.
When Mary was 21, she went to work as a cook in the homes of several affluent families in New York. Soon after she began cooking for them, several members of the families came down with Typhoid Fever.
The next year, Mary moved to New York City and, again, several people that she cooked for developed Typhoid. One woman even died.
Mary continued to move around the city working as a cook, but leaving when the people around her started getting sick. Mary was preparing food, but was not washing her hands. Food that she served that wasn’t cooked, like ice cream, contained the bacteria that caused Typhoid.
In August 1906, Mary took a summer job cooking for Charles Henry Warren and his family at the house they had rented for the summer in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Before the end of the month, Mrs. Warren, 2 of the Warren children, 2 maids and the gardener were all showing the symptoms of Typhoid.
In Oyster Bay, people took notice. This town was known as a playground for the rich. At the time, Typhoid was thought of as a “poor people’s disease.” The exact science of the disease wasn’t known (doctors thought that it lived in the gallbladder, for example), but there had never been a case in Oyster Bay before.
Afraid that no one would want to rent his home if it was linked to Typhoid, the owner of the house hired George Soper to find the cause of the outbreak.
He began investigating Typhoid cases around the city. George was able to find several cases that he could link to Mary. Then the daughter and two servants of a man living on Park Avenue became ill. The daughter died. Mary was their cook.
George tracked Mary down and asked to test her for Typhoid. She refused. He visited her again, this time with a doctor. She refused, again, to be tested.
The New York City Health Department sent Dr. Josephine Baker to visit with Mary. Mary refused to be tested.
Josephine returned a few days later with the police. Mary ran. She was caught, but she fought hard. Josephine had to sit on Mary in the police vehicle after she was arrested.
Mary was quarantined on North Brother Island. She stayed there for three years. Doctors told her that if she would allow them to remove her gallbladder she could leave. This surgery was dangerous at the time and Mary wasn’t sick. She refused. She was eventually slated for release, but one condition of her freedom would be that she could not go back to work as a cook. She agreed and was released on February 19, 1910.
Mary got a job doing laundry, but this didn’t pay nearly as well as cooking. After a few years, she changed her name to Mary Brown and went back to working as a cook.
Authorities contacted George to chase her down. He was unable to find her until 1915 when 25 people at Sloan maternity hospital fell ill with Typhoid. Two people died. Mary was arrested again and returned to North Brother Island on March 27, 1915.
Mary often said that being called Typhoid Mary had ruined her life. She never could understand how she had made people sick.
She was the first, but not the only, asymptomatic carrier identified at this time. Alphonse Cotils was the owner of a bakery in New York. He was identified as a carrier and told not to serve food, but he continued to do so. He went to court where it was ruled that he couldn’t be jailed but that he could no longer handle food given to customers. He complied and continued to run his business.
Mary would remain quarantined on the island for the rest of her life. In 1932, she suffered a stroke and was paralyzed. She died of pneumonia on November 11, 1938. She was 69 years old.
The New York Times linked Mary to 51 cases of Typhoid and 4 deaths. Because she used pseudonyms and moved around so much, there may have been more, but this is hardly the highest number of cases linked to one person. It seems as though she received the harshest punishment of any other carrier identified in her lifetime. This was probably a combination of her being the first identified carrier and her refusal to believe that she had made others sick.
You can read a letter written by Mary while in quarantine here:
A video summary of this week’s post can be found at