Filming the story of Typhoid Mary

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 Emory Report

Feb. 15, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 20

Lecture on 'Typhoid Mary' shows the harm in labeling

Few people know or remember the name "Mary Mallon." An Irish immigrant, she made her living as a cook in the homes of New York City's upper classes around the turn of the century. While not well known now or during her lifetime by her given name, by the time she was 36 years old Mary Mallon had become infamously known as "Typhoid Mary."

In this year's J. Harvey Young Lecture sponsored by the Department of History on Feb. 8, University of Wisconsin medical historian Judith Leavitt fleshed out the details of Mallon's life, 26 years of which were spent isolated in a one-room cabin on New York's North River Island, where a hospital had been built for people with typhoid and other infectious diseases. Leavitt's book on Mallon echoes the title of her lecture, "What's in a Name? Histories of Typhoid Mary and Mary Mallon."

Until the end of her life, Mallon strongly denied ever having contracting typhoid fever, a systemic bacterial disease characterized by fever, headache and gastrointestinal symptoms and spread through the urine and feces of its carriers--mostly by unwashed hands.

But Mallon, who had been identified by public health officials as one of the first "healthy" carriers of typhoid fever, probably had had little more than brief flulike symptoms when she contracted the disease.

Between 1900 and 1907, officials estimated that Mallon had infected some 22 people, one of whom had died. "When public health officials discovered Mary Mallon in 1907, they decided that she was too dangerous to be allowed to continue to earn her living by cooking," Leavitt said.

That set into motion a series of actions leading to Mallon's first two-year isolation on North River Island. She was later released, but Mallon's failure to earn a living at other jobs led her back to cooking, where she infected another 25 people. This time two died, and Mallon was forced to spend the rest of her life on North River Island, dying there in 1938.

Mallon's story represents a classic public health dilemma that still plays out today, said Leavitt. "That is, how far and under what conditions can the state infringe on personal liberty in order to protect the public's health. And, whose liberty does the state choose to infringe upon?" Mallon's "multilayered" story doesn't provide easy answers to current-day public health problems like AIDS or drug-resistant tuberculosis, she added.

Leavitt found in her research that Mallon was "demonized" by the same public health officials charged with her care and by media reports. The less-than-objective characterizations by George Soper, the New York public health official who first approached Mallon and was rebuffed by his angry subject as she wielded a carving fork, led to a public perception of Mallon that was inaccurate, Leavitt said.

"Factors other than science entered into his evaluation of his subject," she said, citing as examples his descriptions of Mallon's "determined mouth and jaw" and "distinctively masculine mind." He even described her handwriting.

These and other characterizations, Leavitt believes, led to newspaper drawings of "Typhoid Mary" that emphasized a menacing and masculine woman who deliberately infected and killed her "victims." Leavitt showed a photo of Mallon lying in a ward in the hospital of North River Island. Her gaze is direct, and she is pretty in the Gibson Girl-style of the early 1900s, very much unlike Soper's description.

The powers that "victors" have of language, of "naming" and of how a story is told can have disastrous effects, Leavitt said. "Names can hurt. They can change the course of a life, of history and of how we historians tell history.

"Public health policy is built on what parts of history we choose to remember and chose to use," she said, adding, "How different a course could [have been set for Mallon] so easily." Leavitt noted that public health officials never attempted to educate Mallon as to how to stop contaminating others, although they well knew what she needed to do.

While not nearly as educated as those who sought to banish her, Mallon herself wrote eloquently about the power of names. "I lived a decent, upright life under the name of Mary Mallon until I was seized rechristened 'Typhoid Mary,' she said, adding, "All the water in the ocean wouldn't clear me of this charge by the health department."

--Stacey Jones

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