What's in the News: Typhoid Mary's infamy recalled with each new epidemic

by Kathleen O'Toole

In popular culture there is no such person as "Typhoid Tony," even though Tony Labella infected more than twice as many people with typhoid fever as Mary Mallon. Yet Typhoid Mary was so infamous that nearly a century later, the nickname is still attached to sick people who are exceptionally contagious.

Both Labella and Mallon were healthy carriers of the bacteria that cause typhoid fever. Both lived in New York early in the 20th century when outbreaks of the disease periodically swept through the city. Biographer Judith Leavitt believes that Mallon was treated more harshly -- by both the authorities and history -- because of prejudice against Irish immigrants, women and domestic servants.

Mallon came to the United States from Ireland as a teenager in the 1880s. As many immigrants did at that time, she found employment as a cook. In 1906, she took a job with a family at a summer home on Long Island. When six members of the household later became sick with typhoid fever, an investigator began looking for the source of the illness. He soon learned that the fever had infected seven of Mallon's previous eight employers. He tracked Mallon down, but she insisted that she was healthy and refused to answer his questions. When he persisted, she grew violent. "She seized a carving fork and advanced in my direction," the investigator reported.

Finally, officials from the New York City health department stepped in. They took Mallon into custody and forced her into quarantine at a hospital on North Brother Island in the East River. Mallon protested her confinement. She insisted that she did not have typhoid fever -- and that was true. She did, however, test positive for typhosa bacilli, the microbes that cause the disease, becoming the first known healthy carrier of a disease that was often fatal.

In 1910, health officials released Mallon after she promised never again to work as a cook. Far from keeping her word, Mallon regularly switched jobs and changed her name to throw health officials off her trail. In 1915, when a typhoid outbreak was traced to a hospital cook named "Mrs. Brown," the authorities nabbed Mary Mallon and sent her back to her island quarantine. Although she showed no symptoms of the disease herself, she was held against her will until her death in 1938.

In the medical myths of the time, Mary Mallon was thought to have infected hundreds, if not thousands, of people with typhoid fever. In fact, she was known to be responsible for only 47 cases. But legends die hard.

In the effort to control an epidemic of SARS or severe acute respiratory syndrome, some scientists are asking whether some people are exceptionally potent carriers of the disease. Scientists liken these "superspreaders" to Typhoid Mary.

This week, "What's in the News" reviews the SARS story and other current events from the past season.

"What's in the News" is a current events program for Social Studies classes that is co-hosted and written by Kathleen O'Toole and produced by WPSX-TV in cooperation with Penn State's College of Education. The show is endorsed by the National Council for the Social Studies. For more information, visit http://www.witn.psu.edu

Last Updated March 19, 2009