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Posts Tagged ‘asymptomatic’

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Irish cook Mary Mallon (Typhoid Mary) in a hospital bed. She never had symptoms and refused to believe she was giving people typhoid.

In the pandemic, many people spending extra time at home are sorting through “stuff,” and my husband is no exception. The other day, he brought out a program from a play he saw in Minneapolis in the 1990s: Forgiving Typhoid Mary.

The contemporary relevance of Typhoid Mary was not lost on me. Mary Mallon (1869 – 1938), by all accounts a good cook, was placed in a number of homes by employment agencies, and had no clue why people where she worked kept getting typhoid.

Wikipedia describes her as “an Irish-born cook believed to have infected 53 people with typhoid fever, three of whom died, and the first person in the United States identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the disease. Because she persisted in working as a cook, by which she exposed others to the disease, she was twice forcibly quarantined by authorities, and died after a total of nearly three decades in isolation. … Presumably, she was born with typhoid because her mother was infected during pregnancy.”

Wikipedia explains that she worked for several affluent families where typhoid appeared mysteriously, including “a position in Oyster Bay on Long Island with the family of a wealthy New York banker, Charles Henry Warren.” Shortly after that assignment, “in late 1906, Mallon was hired by Walter Bowen, whose family lived on Park Avenue. Their maid got sick on January 23, 1907, and soon Charles Warren’s only daughter got typhoid and died. This case helped to identify Mallon as the source of the infections.

George Soper, an investigator hired by Warren after the outbreak in Oyster Bay, had been trying to determine the cause of typhoid outbreaks in well-to-do families, when it was known that the disease typically struck in unsanitary environments.

“He discovered that a female Irish cook, who fitted the physical description he had been given, was involved in all of the outbreaks. He was unable to locate her because she generally left after an outbreak began, without giving a forwarding address. Soper then learned of an active outbreak in a penthouse on Park Avenue and discovered Mallon was the cook. Two of the household’s servants were hospitalized, and the daughter of the family died of typhoid.

Soper first met Mallon in the kitchen of the Bowens and accused her of spreading the disease. Though Soper himself recollected his behavior as ‘as diplomatic as possible,’ he infuriated Mallon and she threatened him with a carving fork.

“When Mallon refused to give samples, Soper decided to compile a five-year history of her employment. He found that of the eight families that had hired Mallon as a cook, members of seven claimed to have contracted typhoid fever. Then Soper found out where Mallon’s boyfriend lived and arranged a new meeting there. He took Dr. Raymond Hoobler in an attempt to convince Mary to give them samples of urine and stool for analysis. Mallon again refused to cooperate, believing that typhoid was everywhere and that the outbreaks had happened because of contaminated food and water. At that time, the concept of healthy carriers was unknown even to healthcare workers.”

Hmmm. If a cook who emigrated from Ireland at 15, presumably without much education, failed to understand something that no one at the time knew about, I guess a case could be made for “forgiving” her. Not sure the same can be said for the super-spreaders of Covid-19. When I think of health-care workers exposing themselves every day and “seeing the regret” in the eyes of dying patients, it really makes my blood boil.

By the way, the relevance of Typhoid Mary was not lost on a theater in the Berkshires either. Alas, I did my online search too late and missed out on the Barrington Stage Company reading of Forgiving Typhoid Mary by a few days. If you’re as curious as I was about the “forgiving” aspect of the title, you can read the 1991 New York Times review, here, which provides a hint.

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