Questioning the Quantified Life   /   Summer 2020   /    Notes And Comments

Learning from Typhoid Mary

Genuine risks to public health are commingled with selective punishment and prejudice.

B.D. McClay

An illustration of “Typhoid Mary” that appeared in 1909 in The New York American. Via Wikimedia Commons.

When she arrived on North Brother Island in 1907, Mary Mallon knew it mainly as the site of a terrible disaster that took place just three years before. A steamboat, the General Slocum, caught fire and the resulting conflagration killed approximately one thousand German Americans, mostly women and children, as they were travelling to Eatons Neck, Long Island, for a church picnic. The tragic loss of human lives was increased not only by useless safety equipment—life preservers that had lost their buoyancy, lifeboats fixed in place and unmovable—but also the captain’s decision to steer straight into the wind, thus fanning the murderous flames. Bodies littered the shoreline.

Except for a brief five-year hiatus, Mallon would stay on North Brother Island for the rest of her life (twenty-six years in all) as a permanent ward of Riverside Hospital, which had been established in the 1880s to quarantine patients with contagious diseases. Today, even more than the General Slocum episode, Mallon is the most famous disaster associated with North Brother Island. You know her as Typhoid Mary.

In light of her employment history, and knowing what we know now, it is surprising that Mallon never believed she had spread typhoid herself. She worked as a home cook—one of the few professions in which it was possible for her to infect others—and was well-loved by her employers for a dish of ice cream and peaches—a dish which, being uncooked, was one of the few that could carry typhoid. Still, typhoid was not a rare disease, even though it was uncommon in wealthy households. So there was no real reason for Mallon to have associated herself with the disease. And as it turns out, she never did.

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