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Booster Shots

There Was Something Infectious About Mary

September 02, 2002|ROSIE MESTEL

If the woman in this picture has a sour expression, who can blame her? For 26 years, she was held captive on a small island in New York's East River.

Health officials kept her there because they said she was making people sick--a charge that the woman, Mary Mallon, viewed as utterly outrageous. She'd never hurt a fly, she insisted. She'd merely tried to earn a living as a cook.

Mary Mallon was the original "Typhoid Mary," one of the first identified healthy carriers of a disease. She moved from job to job--common for women in domestic service at the start of the 20th century--and, oddly, wherever she went, people fell ill.

Judith Walzer Leavitt, professor of the history of medicine at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, says Mallon was an Irish immigrant who came to the U.S. as a teenager in 1883, earned her living as a cook in the households of affluent New York families and, in the summer of 1906, was hired to cook for a family vacationing in Long Island. During those months, six people in the household fell ill with typhoid fever.

The life-threatening disease, with symptoms such as high temperature, weakness and stomach pains, still infects millions in the developing world. But in turn-of-the-century America, it was no longer the scourge it had once been. Health officials knew the disease was caused by contaminated water and had done much to clean up the supply.

But people still got it--maybe 5,000 a year in New York. This, Leavitt says, is where carriers like Mary came in.

Not that she was suspected at first. No one knew about "healthy carriers" of diseases in those days. (The very idea that germs caused disease was still pretty new.) When the owners of the vacation rental hired sanitary engineer George Soper to investigate, he explored many avenues before he homed in on Mallon. "He looked at the shellfish the people were eating, looked in the community to see if anyone else was sick, tested the water--all the usual things," says Leavitt.

Then someone mentioned the cook that had been hired--and as Soper delved into her history, he noted the suspicious trail of typhoid cases she left in her wake.

As Leavitt recounts in her book, "Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public's Health" (Beacon Press, 1997), Soper traced Mallon, who was working in a posh Park Avenue brownstone in New York. He approached her, told her he suspected she was making people sick, and asked her for samples of her feces, blood and urine.

Understandably, Mallon went after Soper with a carving fork and kicked him out of the house.

But health authorities eventually apprehended Mary--and got their samples. The samples came up positive for Salmonella typhi, the bacterium that causes typhoid fever when it gets into the human gut.

The New York City health department banished her to live in a cottage on North Brother Island--and continued to periodically test her feces for S. typhi.

The infection, they found, persisted.

Mallon, through all this, was totally indignant. She insisted that she'd never had a bout of typhoid fever. But clearly, sometime in her past, she had been infected, maybe suffering only very mild symptoms. While most infected people eventually kill off the microbe, a few--maybe 3%--are healthy but carry the germ forever, potentially contaminating the food that they handle. (Modern studies show that the bacteria can form a tough coating over the surface of gallstones, perhaps explaining why some folks become carriers.) Mallon was held captive with no due process and received a hearing only after the New York American, a local Hearst newspaper, got hold of the story in 1909 and made much of it.

She lost that hearing--and went back to her island.

Later, she was released on the condition that she never hold a job as a cook again. But cooking paid more than other domestic jobs, and after four years she adopted an alias and went back to her old profession.

All was revealed after another outbreak of typhoid occurred in the hospital where she was working. Mallon was shipped back to her island--this time until her death in 1938.

As for the phrase "Typhoid Mary," it quickly transmogrified from a phrase pertaining only to Mallon to one used by public health workers to refer to any healthy carrier of disease. Today the phrase is much more metaphorical, referring to someone who brings trouble wherever they go. And we all know one or two of those.

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If you have an idea for a Booster Shots topic, write or e-mail Rosie Mestel at the Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st. St., Los Angeles, CA 90012, rosie.mestel@latimes.com.

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