Mary Mallon (1870?–1938), known as Typhoid Mary, was an itinerant domestic servant and cook, probably an Irish immigrant, though possibly American-born (her origin and early life are un-known). She probably had typhoid fever in 1899 and made an apparently complete recovery. However, she was a symptomless carrier of typhoid bacilli, presumably from a nidus of infection in her gallbladder, for many years—perhaps for the rest of her life.
Between 1900 and 1907, Mallon is known to have infected twenty-two people in New York City, passing the typhoid bacillus to them in cakes she had baked. One of these persons died. The nascent clinical science of bacteriological epidemiology enabled public health authorities to trace her and eventually to apprehend her. She was held in quarantine on North Brother Island, off the Bronx coast, for three years, then released after solemnly promising never to work as a cook again. But she soon broke her promise, and returned to the only occupation at which she could survive, becoming a cook in Sloan Maternity Hospital, where she infected twenty-five more people, two of whom died.
Mallon was incarcerated again in quarantine, where she remained until her death in 1938. She was apparently a likable and pleasant woman—she was said to be "good with children"—and she was an excellent cook. Her life story has been the topic of several books and a movie.
Mallon's experience is a paradigm for some of the failings of public health, which can exert authority over people's lives in order to control some diseases but cannot necessarily correct the underlying social and economic conditions that are ultimately responsible for these diseases. A modern parallel to the story of Typhoid Mary can be seen in the experience of many sex workers infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis, and other diseases.
John M. Last
(see also: Carrier; Communicable Disease Control; Food-Borne Diseases; Quarantine; Typhoid )
Leavitt, J. W. (2000). Typhoid Mary; Captive to the Public's Health. Boston, MA: Beacon Books.