Typhoid Mary: The True Story

In the early 1900s, typhoid was one the main killer diseases in the United States. It was also a horrible illness, with its victims often suffering from intestinal bleeding and brain inflammation, along with a dangerously high fever. If you caught it, there was a 30% chance that you would not survive.

This was also the era when doctors finally stopped believing that diseases could be spread by bad smells and recognized that bacteria were to blame for many diseases. This scientific breakthrough allowed epidemiologists to trace the source of major outbreaks of disease. Since typhoid is a bacterial illness, tracing the source of an epidemic was now possible.


In 1906, the wealthy Warren family were vacationing on Long Island when six of their party came down with the dreaded illness. When the family hired George Soper, a civil engineer, to locate the source of their illness, he set to work investigating. He decided that the Warren’s cook, Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant, was the source of the infection.

At first, the Warrens could not believe that Mary had made them ill. She had never come down with typhoid, so how could she have spread it? While investigating the health histories of Warren’s staff, Soper had discovered, that Mary had changed jobs once a year for the past seven years. At each one of her former jobs, the family had contracted typhoid, and at least one person had died.

Soper tried to convince Mary to give him urine, blood, and fecal samples to be tested for typhoid, but she threatened to stab him with a meat fork, so he left. The New York Health Department stepped in, though, and with the help of police officers took Mary into custody.

Mary was forced to remain in custody for three years, where it was discovered that she was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid. Her body was full of bacteria that had no effect on her health at all. Her habit of not washing her hands before preparing food probably caused to her to spread the disease so easily.

Mary was confined in a New York quarantine facility, forced to provide 163 samples of different bodily fluids, until she was finally released in 1910. The only condition attached to her freedom was that she not become a cook again. She took a job in a laundry and was soon forgotten.

In 1915, Sloan Maternity Hospital experienced a typhoid outbreak among its staff. Twenty-three people became ill, and two died. When health officials visited the hospital to investigate the outbreak, a cook named Mary Brown could not be located. She had fled, but was eventually caught. As it turned out, Mary Brown was none other than Mary Mallon, the same woman who had made so many people ill from typhoid already. It seemed she just couldn’t stay out of the kitchen.

The authorities were not taking any chances this time, and Mary was confined again to the same facility. This time she was forced to remain there until her death 23 years later. Oddly, she did not die from the typhoid that she was infested with. She actually succumbed to a stroke. No one ever found out why she continued to work as a cook, even though her habit of leaving a job as soon as her employer became ill seems to suggest she knew something was wrong with her. She insisted until her dying day, though, that she was not a carrier of the deadly disease.

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