New York washed its hands of Mary Mallon 150 years ago, writes David E. Norris

Mary Mallon was born in Cookstown, County Tyrone, on 23rd September, 1869. She emigrated to New York, alone, when she was just fifteen.

At a time when New York’s Lower East Side witnessed over 4,000 typhoid cases a year, she became a cook. Unfortunately she was also one of America’s earliest identified typhoid carriers. As a cook she infected people. As a carrier she needed to be quarantined. She was, for a total of 25 years, and earned the nickname ‘Typhoid Mary’.

Back in 1906, Typhoid was known to be a disease linked to dirt and squalor. Polluted water was the most common source of infection. Any routine inspection of drinking water, outhouses or cesspools was usually enough to find the cause of an outbreak. Failing that, dairy products and raw food were the second most likely source.

In Mary Mallon’s case, things took a different turn. An outbreak occurred in a privately rented house on Oyster Bay. The man renting it was the president of The Lincoln Bank. The embarrassed owner of the house, a man named George Thompson, called in a sanitary engineer named Dr. George Soper, whose reputation was built on writing papers on street cleaning techniques, safe waste disposal and efficient air ventilation.

He analysed the goings on in the household over the 14-day incubation period of a typhoid outbreak and concluded that Mary Mallon was suspect number one.

She had, after all, a track record of being employed as a cook at rich households which had experienced typhoid outbreaks over the previous six years. When they occurred she simply moved on.

Unfortunately for George Soper, whereas he excelled at sanitary detection work he was sadly lacking at what are now called interpersonal skills.

When he marched into Mary’s place of work to demand ‘personal specimens’, she showed him the door by pointing a carving fork at him!

To make matters worse, he staked out her flat, bribed her partner and made another attempt at ‘extracting some evidence’ from Mary and again she showed him short shrift.
Only then was the New York Health Department called in.

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