Typhoid Mary


How could a seemingly healthy woman spread a potentially deadly disease?

Typhoid or Typhoid fever fever is a bacterial infection that can spread throughout the body, affecting many organs. Without prompt treatment, it can cause serious complications and can be fatal.If typhoid fever isn’t treated, it’s estimated that up to 1 in 5 people with the condition will die. However at the start of the 20th century that number would have been greater.

The main symptoms of typhoid fever are:

  • a high temperature that can reach 39 to 40C
  • headache
  • general aches and pains
  • cough
  • constipation

Additionally it can cause diarrhea and a rash.Typhoid fever is caused by a type of bacteria called Salmonella typhi. It is basically spread by poor hygiene.

Mary Mallon was an asymptomatic carrier of the pathogen associated with typhoid fever. This means although she was infected she didn’t have any signs of the symptoms. Although she herself did not have the symptoms, she was a carrier and could infect others around her.

She  was born in 1869 in Cookstown, County Tyrone, in what is now Northern Ireland.Orphaned as a child, Mary lived with her grandmother. Her Grandmother taught Mary how to scrounge for food and cook with what they had, making potato cakes and nettles over a peat fire.

In 1883 or 1884, Mary immigrated  to the US  where she lived with her Aunt and Uncle.In 1900  , she found employment in Mamaroneck, New York, as a cook.

Mary ccok

Soon a number of residents of the houses where she worked developed fever and diarrhea.

In 1901, she moved 18 miles to Manhattan, where members of the family for whom she worked developed fevers and diarrhea, and the laundress died. Mallon then went to work for a lawyer and left after seven of the eight people in that household became ill.

In 1906 she moved to  Oyster Bay ,Long Island.Where again she got a job as a cook. Within two weeks, 10 of the 11 family members were diagnosed with typhoid and hospitalized. Mary moved jobs again, this time for a wealthy New York banker, Charles Henry Warren. The Warrens had rented a house in Oyster Bay for the summer of 1906, Mallon went along too ,where she infected  six of the 11 people in the family.

Eventually one of the families Mary had worked for hired George Soper, a typhoid researcher


After his investigation Soper released his  results on June 15, 1907, in the Journal of the American Medical Association. He had the believe that Mary Mallon could be the source of the outbreak.He wrote:

“It was found that the family changed cooks in August 4. This was about three weeks before the typhoid epidemic broke out. The new cook, Mallon, remained in the family only a short time, and left about three weeks after the outbreak occurred. Mallon was described as an Irish woman about 40 years of age, tall, heavy, single. She seemed to be in perfect health.”

Soper looked into the employment agencies which staffed private kitchens and retrieved the name of Mary’s employers from 1900 to 1907. He found out that typhoid had struck seven of the last eight families where she worked. He also discovered, , that in all the stricken households she had lovingly iced and nursed the victims ,even receiving a tip of $50 from  one employer.

Soper tracked Mary Mallon to a house on Park Avenue,home of Walter Bowen, where a daughter and maid had already come down with typhoid. When Soper  approached  Mary about her possible role in spreading typhoid, she was furious.

Soper reported this to the authorities  and 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. Mallon was held in isolation for three years at a clinic located on North Brother Island.


In 1910 it was agreed that Mallon could be released from the Hospital if she agreed to stop working as a cook, and take precautions to ensure that she didn’t infect more people with  typhoid. She returned to the mainland and got a job as a laundress. But Sbecause this was a low paid job  she changed her name to Mary Brown and resumed working as a cook.

For the following five years, everywhere she 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 on March 27,1915 the health authorities  returned her to quarantine on North Brother Island,where she remained for the rest of her life.


Despite her isolation she became a minor celebrity and was occasionally interviewed by the media.Visitors  were  strongly urged warned not to accept even a glass of water from her . On November 11,1938, died of pneumonia at the age of 69.




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Irish Times

Irish America