Mary Mallon, the Irish woman who brought typhoid to New York
Irish Connections: In the early 1900s, a cook from Co Tyrone unwittingly spread the disease
Mary Mallon, aka “Typhoid Mary”, pictred after being institutionalised on Brother Island in New York. She was the first person identified as a carrier of typhoid bacilli in the US. Herself immune to the disease, she spread typhoid while working as a cook in the New York City area. Photograph: Getty Images
One of the most distinctive buildings in the town of Mamaroneck, in New York State’s Westchester County, is a roadside building with a pagoda-style copper roof, oxidised to a dramatic green. A local landmark, it features on the national register of historic places.
The building is the home of Walter’s Hot Dogs, which has been purveying award-winning hot dogs to the US since the 1920s. The stand also sells New England clam chowder and a newly created dessert confection by the name of funnel fries – sticks of deep-fried cake dough topped with powdered sugar – which sounds as though it should be filed somewhere between “danged delectable” and “downright dangerous”.
Walter’s is a light-hearted, all-American business and the town of Mamaroneck (pronounced Ma-mar-oneck), just 18 miles from Manhattan but situated in a picturesque location on Long Island Sound, is a highly desirable place to live. But it also has a rather more sinister food-related history.
In 1900 an Irish woman called Mary Mallon got a job there, working as a cook for several wealthy families. Within weeks of Mallon’s arrival – she had emigrated from Cookstown, Co Tyrone – a number of people in the houses where she worked developed fever and diarrhoea. She kept changing jobs, but everywhere she went, it was the same story. In 1901 she moved to Manhattan: this time, the laundress employed by the family died.
In 1906 Mallon got a job in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Within two weeks, 10 of the 11 family members were diagnosed with typhoid and hospitalised. Next, Mallon worked for a wealthy New York banker, Charles Henry Warren. When the Warrens rented a house in Oyster Bay for the summer of 1906, Mallon went along too – only for six of the 11 people in the family to get sick.
When Soper approached Mallon about her possible role in spreading typhoid, she was furious
Was Mallon’s cooking really that bad? Or could there be another explanation? Eventually one of the afflicted families hired a researcher named George Soper to find out what was happening. The results of his investigation were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in June 1907. “It was found that the family changed cooks on August 4,” he wrote. “She remained in the family only a short time, leaving about three weeks after the [typhoid] outbreak occurred. The cook was described as an Irish woman about 40 years of age, tall, heavy, single. She seemed to be in perfect health.”
Soper tracked Mary Mallon to a house on Park Avenue but when he approached her about her possible role in spreading typhoid, she was furious. During one encounter, when she was herself hospitalised, he told Mallon he would write a book and give her all the royalties. She locked herself in the bathroom until he left.
Taken into custody
Eventually, the New York City Department of Health arranged for Mallon to be taken into custody. Doctors found typhoid bacteria in her gallbladder, but she refused to have it removed as she didn’t believe she carried the disease. Nevertheless, she was classed as a carrier and held in isolation at a clinic on a small island on the East River.
For the next five years, everywhere that Mallon went, typhoid followed
It was agreed that Mallon could be freed if she agreed to stop working as a cook, and take reasonable steps to ensure that she didn’t give typhoid to other people. In 1910 she returned to the mainland and got a job as a laundress. But it didn’t pay very well, so she changed her name to Mary Brown and went back to working as a cook.
For the next five years, everywhere that Mallon went, typhoid followed. In 1915 she set off a major outbreak in New York in which 25 people were infected and two died. She was arrested, and spent the rest of her life in quarantine – which didn’t prevent her from becoming a minor celebrity. She was interviewed by the press from time to time – visiting hacks were warned not to accept even a glass of water from her – and, in 1938, died of pneumonia at the age of 69.