By Gerry Breen
Nowadays, travellers in many countries are quarantined for two weeks to guard against the spread of Covid 19, but just over a hundred years ago, Mary Mallon, the Irish woman who became known as Typhoid Mary, spent 26 years as a virtual prisoner of the New York City Health Department to ensure that she would not spread typhoid fever.
Mary Mallon was born in Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, on 23rd September, 1869, to John and Catherine Mallon, and when she was about fifteen years old, she emigrated to the United States. Like thousands of her contemporaries, she left Ireland in search of a better life.
She travelled alone to New York City, where she moved in with her uncle and aunt. She had every appearance of a healthy young woman and she found work in the homes of wealthy families.
In 1906, Mary got a position as cook in the household of Charles Henry Warren, a wealthy New York banker. During the summer months, Charles Warren rented a residence at Oyster Bay on the north coast of Long Island and it was there that Mary began her work. Between 27th of August and 6th of September, six of the eleven people in the Warren house became ill with typhoid fever.
Naturally, Charles Warren was shocked by this development because typhoid fever mainly affected deprived people of the crowded slums in the large cities. It was still fatal in ten per cent of cases and that was a very worrying factor. A sanitary engineer named George Sober, was commissioned by the Warren family to investigate. At first, Sober believed that freshwater clams from the area might have been the cause of the infections, but this theory had to be discarded when he discovered that not all of the people affected had eaten the clams.
Mary Mallon, the cook, hadn’t the faintest idea that she was carrying the contagious bacteria. She had never demonstrated any of its symptoms, which included fever, headaches and diarrhoea. She was actually immune to the disease, and became the first person in the United States to be identified as an asymptomatic carrier.