Mallon, Mary (1867–1938)

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Mallon, Mary (1867–1938)

American of Irish descent who contributed to the spread of typhoid, earning the name Typhoid Mary . Name variations: Typhoid Mary; Mrs. Brown; Marie Breshof. Born, she said, in America in 1867; died on North Brother Island on November 11, 1938. Mallon would leave no record of her past, nor would she allow her photograph to be taken, though one or two exist.

As the first known symptom-free carrier of the typhoid bacilli, Mary Mallon was a nine-year nightmare for those employed at New York City's Department of Health.

When six members of the household of Charles Henry Warren of Oyster Bay, Long Island, were struck with typhoid in August 1906, investigators for the Department of Health, led by sanitary engineer George A. Soper, were sent out to the house. In that year alone, the infectious disease had claimed 23,000 American lives. After eliminating the usual culprits—water supply, drainage, cesspools, indoor and outdoor plumbing—Soper began to look for a human carrier, making him the first in the United States to test a new theory being advanced in Germany by bacteriologist Robert Koch. For years, it had been known that victims of typhoid fever were contagious while they were ill and sometimes during recovery, but Koch maintained that a carrier, someone who had never even experienced the fever, could spread the disease through their feces as they continually bred the bacilli inside their bodies.

Soper discovered that one of the cooks was missing from the Warren house, a cook the family had newly retained through a New York employment agency at the beginning of August. She was a pretty good cook though not particularly clean, remarked Mrs. Warren, and she had left abruptly, without giving notice, three weeks after the outbreak of typhoid. Her name was Mary Mallon.

Aided by eyewitness descriptions, Soper set out to find a tall, buxom, 40-year-old Irish-American woman with blue eyes and blonde hair, who was described as firm of mouth and jaw. After months of research, through interviewing, gathering clues, and following leads, he pieced together her employment history over the previous ten years. His discoveries were alarming. In 1897, Mary Mallon began work for a family in Mamaroneck, New York; three years later, a houseguest came down with typhoid ten days after he arrived. In 1901–02, she was employed by a Manhattan family; one month after her arrival, their laundress was hospitalized with typhoid. In June 1902, she was employed at the summer home of J. Coleman Drayton in Dark Harbor, Maine; a few weeks later, six members of the household fell ill with typhoid. Before she left, Mallon stayed to help nurse them. In June 1904, she was employed at the summer estate of Henry Gilsey in Sands Point, Long Island; another laundress and three more servants took sick with typhoid.

Soper also learned that, within a few days of leaving the Warren family, Mallon had taken a job in Tuxedo, New York. After another laundress in that household took sick with typhoid, Mary Mallon had again moved on, but no one knew her whereabouts. Soper was convinced that his dilemma would be solved if he could find her. He planned to tell Mallon of her contagion, persuade her to volunteer for specimen tests of blood, urine, and feces to make certain she was a carrier, and educate her to minimize the risk. With the proper precautions, there was no reason for her to be deprived of a normal life.

In March 1907, while investigating another case of typhoid in a brownstone on Park Avenue, Soper was conducted to the kitchen and introduced to a cook named Mary Mallon. The meeting did not go as he might have hoped; when he told her he suspected she was a carrier, she lurched at him with a carving fork. Soper fled the house.

Soper learned that Mallon often spent the night with a man who lived in a rooming house on Third Avenue. With another doctor on hand, he stationed himself in the hallway and waited. When Mallon arrived, they tried reasoning with her, promising they would not harm her and begging only for her help with specimens. Furious, Mallon said they made no sense, that she never had typhoid, that typhoid was everywhere and why blame it on her, a woman who had only nursed its victims. Once again, as curses whirled around his head, Soper was driven away.

Stymied, he appealed to the health commissioner. On March 18, 1907, Dr. S. Josephine Baker was sent to implore Mallon to come in for tests voluntarily, but Mallon would not be cajoled. When Baker returned the following morning on the orders of her superior Dr. Walter Bensel, she was accompanied by an ambulance and three policemen. Baker had been instructed to get the specimens, period. If Mallon resisted, she was to be forcibly taken to the Willard Parker Hospital for Contagious Disease at the foot of East 16th Street.

Instructing the ambulance to remain at the corner, Baker positioned two of the policemen and, accompanied by the third, approached the house. Mallon opened the door narrowly, lunged with a kitchen fork, then ran to the rear of the house and disappeared. After a five-hour search, Baker finally found Mallon in the outside closet-shed of an adjoining house; trash cans had been stacked in front of its door by conspiring servant friends. "I made another effort to talk to her sensibly," said Baker, "and asked her again to let me have the specimens, but it was no use. By that time she was convinced that the law was wantonly persecuting her, when she had done nothing wrong. She knew she had never had typhoid fever; she was maniacal in her integrity. There was nothing I could do but take her with us. … I literally saton her all the way to the hospital; it was like being in a cage with an angry lion."

Analysis of specimens proved that Mallon was a carrier. Soper, evidently a compassionate man, visited and tried to reason with her. It was not her fault that she carried the disease, he told her, but when she went to the toilet, germs got on her hands, and because she did not wash her hands, the germs got on the food. If she had washed her hands there might not have been any trouble. He told her that the bacteria was probably propagating in her gall bladder and asked if she'd be willing to have it removed. He tried to help her understand how many people had suffered and died. He told her that if she cooperated with him, he would help her get out of the hospital. She listened angrily, then walked into the bathroom and slammed the door.

After a few weeks, Mallon was moved and detained at Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island, a secluded 13-acre island in the East River. While tests were continued for eight months, her body kept manufacturing the deadly bacilli. Now aware of symptomless carriers, the Health Department rounded up hundreds of suspects who dealt with food or worked with the milk supply, but when the suspects promised to avoid any job that involved food preparation, they were released. Mary Mallon, however, by now notorious and dubbed Typhoid Mary by the New York tabloids, adamantly refused to make that promise; it was said she loved to cook. Despite two legal actions to free her, she remained in the hospital cut off from contact with others for three years. During this time, she was allowed to work as a laundress and to have a dog.

By February 1910, Mallon had been worn down. She finally acquiesced, promising to abandon employment as a cook. She also agreed to report to the Health Department every three months. The hospital released her, whereupon she promptly disappeared. The facts suggest that at first she did attempt to give up her chosen occupation. Now known as Mrs. Brown or Marie Breshof, Mallon tried running a boarding house which went bust; she then tried taking in ironing, but made far less than she had as a cook. Avoiding employment agencies and private homes, she began cooking in hotels, a Broadway restaurant, and a sanatorium in New Jersey. Though typhoid was reported in each, Mallon was yet to be connected.

Four years later, in 1915, when an outbreak of typhoid at the Sloane Hospital for Women infected 25 and killed two, Soper was called in. Shown a sample of the handwriting of a cook who had been hired three months before and had left without notice after the outbreak, Soper knew he had found his Mary. On March 27, she was brought once again to North Brother Island. Though a sympathetic staff tried to engage her, Mallon wanted none of it. She was withdrawn and sullen, responding to kind gestures with anger. Slowly, over the years, the nurses and doctors broke through her outer shell. Given a job in the laboratories of the hospital, she became a knowledgeable aide, poring over textbooks brought in to her. For $60 a month, she prepared slides and kept records. In 1923, the city gave her a home of her own on the island, a one-room cottage with a plot of grass and two elms, where she sewed, took walks, and read Dickens. On nice days, she would sometimes entertain friends from the hospital on her porch.

Less than ten years later, on Christmas 1932, Mallon was paralyzed by a stroke and forced to live the rest of her days on a hospital ward, a helpless invalid. When she died in 1938, there were 349 known chronic typhoid carriers in the city; all had cooperated, and none had been quarantined. As for Mary Mallon, at least 53 cases and three deaths could be directly attributed to her; she also may have been responsible for starting an epidemic in Ithaca, New York, in 1903. But the actual number of those affected by her cooking will never be known.


Sufrin, Mark. "The Case of the Disappearing Cook," in American Heritage. August 1970, pp. 37–43.

suggested reading:

Leavitt, Judith Walzer. Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public's Health. Beacon, 1996.