A 1907 Article About Typhoid Mary (And Why We Should All Wash Our Hands!)

As a global pandemic currently spreads and people slip further into hysteria, I thought it would be appropriate to share a 1907 article about Typhoid Mary from The Evening World newspaper.

“Typhoid Mary” (born in 1869) was an Irish Cook in New York who is believed to have infected 51 people (3 of whom died) with Typhoid Fever in the early 1900s outbreak.

Mary was an asymptomatic carrier, and therefore continued her work as a cook for several families, all while ignoring medical advice to practice standard hygiene procedures.

George Sober, the physician who first identified Mary as a carrier wrote the following in his 1937 essay about her life:

I first saw Mary Mallon thirty-two years ago, that is, in 1907. She was then about forty years of age and at the height of her physical and mental faculties. She was five feet six inches tall, a blond with clear blue eyes, a healthy color and a somewhat determined mouth and jaw. Mary had a good figure and might have been called athletic had she not been a little too heavy. She prided herself on her strength and endurance, and at that time and for many years thereafter never spared herself in the exercise of it. Nothing was so distinctive about her as her walk, unless it was her mind. The two had a peculiarity in common. […] She could write an excellent letter, so far as composition and spelling were concerned. She wrote in a large, clear, bold hand, and with remarkable uniformity. She read a good deal in the days of her captivity and seldom missed her daily paper. […] Mary possessed a violent temper against which, when fully aroused, few persons had ever been willing to contend.

Typhoid fever comes from the bacterium called Salmonella typhi, which causes a high fever, abdominal pain, and severe headaches. Typhoid was thought to have been isolated to poor communities in the early 1900s where sanitation standards were not in place. When wealthy families started to become ill, doctors traced the illness back to Mary, who refused to believe she was a carrier (and also refused to practice basic hygeine such as hand washing).

Sadly for Mary, she was forcibly quarantined and passed away from pneumonia 6 years after a stroke left her paralyzed. In a postmortum study, live typhoid bacteria was found in her gallbladder. Only nine people are reported to have attended her funeral.

It was simply ignorance, not malice, that led Mary to infect people with Typhoid. She never believed she was a carrier. She felt fine (healthy even) and therefore felt no obligation to shield those around her from Typhoid.

In times of a global pandemic such as we are seeing in 2020, let history serve as a lesson for us all. When we know better, we can do better. Let’s wash our hands and remember though we are healthy, we may pass a virus to someone who may not be.

Let’s take care of each other…and wash our hands!

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Welcome, I'm Jessica. I renovated and moved into my grandparents' old home in early 2018. When my grandmother Jane was alive, she loved to sit outside on a swing with her cat Boots (who still lives here) and read. As we were cleaning up around the house I found a box of letters sitting in a swing outside that she was going through in the time before she passed. I stored them away and recently started reading through them myself. 100 Years of Letters is intended to share those family letters (some of which are over 100 years old) with the world and to keep the history behind them alive. Curl up with your coffee, a cozy blanket, and possibly a cat, and join me on this journey through history!

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