Sarah's Reviews > Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public's Health

Typhoid Mary by Judith Walzer Leavitt
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May 01, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: health, history, non-fiction, new-york
Read in August, 2007

Like most people my age, I wasn't even sure if "Typhoid Mary" was a real person. I thought it was just some stereotype of dirty immigrant women spreading disease wherever they go. However, an Irish born cook named Mary Mallon was the real person behind the stereotype. She cooked for New York's well-to-do at the turn of the 20th century, until she was hauled off to Willard Parker Hospital to be tested for carrying typhoid bacillus (even though she exhibited no symptoms of the disease), and then isolated on North Brother Island when the test came back positive. After being released a few years later, she was returned to the island again (this time permanently) when she was discovered cooking at a children's hospital, after failing to make a sufficient living as a laundress.

Since I found Mallon's case so fascinating, I'm going to briefly share it with all of you to see if I can pique anyone else's interest.

Mary Mallon emigrated from Ireland in 1883 as a teenager. She eventually began earning a comfortable living as a cook for wealthy families in and around New York City. Several (but not all) of the families she worked for had outbreaks of typhoid fever. In 1906 one of the families she had worked for hired a private investigator to determine the cause of the typhoid outbreak in their house (not an uncommon action in those days). George Soper traced the outbreak to Mallon (after researching her background) and unsuccessfully tried to obtain stool samples from Mallon to confirm the diagnosis. While the medical community was becoming quickly acquainted with the concept of healthy carriers of disease, the public knew nothing of it. As a single immigrant woman she was used to defending herself against opportunistic attacks and refused to believe or even listen to anything health department officials had to say. Eventually the police were called in and Mallon was taken to Willard Parker Hospital to be tested for typhoid. The tests came back positive and she was then moved to North Brother Island for isolation while the health department decided what to do with her.

Two years later, still in isolation, Mallon successfully obtained a habeus corpus hearing with the New York Supreme Court. While sympathetic, the judge refused to let a known disease carrier free. However, when a new head of the health department took over the next year, he released Mallon on the condition that she promised to never cook again (handling others' food was the main way carriers spread typhoid). He initially helped her find a job in a laundry, but after a few years she disappeared from the health department's watch. When investigating a typhoid outbreak at a children's hospital in 1915, a cook known as Mrs. Brown is discovered to be the cause of the outbreak, and investigators discover that she is really Mary Mallon. This time she's returned to North Brother Island for the rest of her life. To her dying day Mallon vehemently defended her innocence, claiming that the health department was persecuting her because she was Irish and that she'd never had typhoid in her life.

While this is all weird enough, in the years after Mallon's discovery, the city of New York identified and monitored hundreds of healthy typhoid carriers, only one of whom was ever isolated long term, and there's evidence to suggest that he did so willingly. Mallon was put in the difficult situation of being the first person identified in a new class of threats to the public health. Since she was handled by those in charge of the public health, they obviously put those concerns above any about Mallon's personal freedoms. Throughout the book, I kept wondering, why didn't they just teach her how to wash her hands better or train her for another kind of work (aside from cooking for others, there was little healthy carriers could do to spread the disease), but even with other carriers the health department seemed unwilling to help them enter a new profession.

Not to put all the blame on the health department, Mallon's stubbornness and unwillingness to believe that she was a carrier of typhoid made any compromise between herself and the health department impossible, so that authorities, not understanding her strenuous refusals to cooperate, were forced to contain the threat she posed any way they could.


This is the book for the facts on Mary Mallon's strange case, especially from a medical standpoint. Leavitt was very thorough in her investigations. But that's also why the book drags a little in the beginning. As Leavitt begins to delve into social conditions of the time and more purely historical research, the book starts to pick up. She manages to separate the woman from the stereotype and explains the series of events that has forever intertwined the two. While the scientific background is important for understanding the medical community's reactions to Mallon, finding a way to condense it, or make it less tedious, would go a long way to making this book more popular with a general audience.
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