Mary, Mary, quite contrary…

By all accounts she was a nice woman, tall, charming, and a great cook. Peaches and cream are a classic delight, but in her hands fresh peaches frozen in vanilla ice cream were simply sublime. It was a dish that people always remembered. She was often described as a large woman, and we have all heard the saying “Never trust a skinny chef.”

And she was trusted, by many upper crust East Coast families, working in and around New York City for many years. She had a habit of switching employment often. But you know, good food is always a welcome commodity.

About a year into her culinary career she took a job in Manhattan. Within weeks of her employment several members of the family that she worked for developed fevers and diarrhea, they recovered, but the family’s laundry lady died of the malady. The cook moved on to another New York family, where after a few weeks, seven of the eight family members also developed the same symptoms. She helped care for the sick, which, ironically only seemed to make them worse. A pattern developed: she gained employment, the families got sick, and then she moved on.

The common denominator was a bacterium called Salmonella enterica subsp. enterica. The disease was known by many different names: gastric fever, enteric fever, infantile remittent fever, slow fever, nervous fever and pythogenic fever. It is believed that during the America Civil War the disease killed as many as 238,000 people (there were 215,000 combat fatalities, in total, from both sides). That was before science fully understood bacteria and the role it plays in the transmission of disease. But because this disease bore traits of another well-known disease, typhus, it came to be known as “like typhus” or typhoid.

Typically, typhoid broke out in places with unsanitary living conditions, yet there were dozens of cases in well to do families. It didn’t make sense. But there was one common denominator, each family had hired a female cook, whose specialty was peaches and ice cream. And her first name was always Mary. George Soper, a medical investigator, tried to track this Mary down but was hindered by the fact that she kept changing her last name and never left a forwarding address. Eventually Soper heard about an outbreak in a Park Avenue penthouse. Two servants had been hospitalized and a child had died. Their new cook was named Mary.

When Soper finally located her, she refused to cooperate, even though he could prove that seven of the eight families she had worked for had all contracted the disease. She had her rights and her personal freedoms, she argued. “I have never had typhoid,” she said.

Soper eventually convinced the public authorities that she was an asymptomatic carrier (something unheard of at the time) and as such was a public threat. He eventually succeeded in having her quarantined. She was examined and was found to have the typhoid bacteria heavily present in her system, even though she herself, was a picture of health. Furthermore, she admitted under questioning that she rarely washed her hands, which was a known way to transmit the disease, especially, ironically, if one were to handle raw fruit and cream that was then served without cooking. Mary was released from quarantine after three years on her promise to never work as a cook again.

For several years she did laundry but found the lower pay unsatisfactory. Mary returned to cooking and returned to using aliases. Typhoid outbreaks followed in her wake until after working at a woman’s hospital in New York City where typhoid infected 25 people and killed two, she was identified and arrested.

She refused to be examined and was eventually quarantined against her will. She lived in quarantine isolation for 23 years and when she died in 1938, abundant live typhoid bacteria were found present in her system.

It is believed that Typhoid Mary caused at least 47 infections and at least three deaths. All of which begs the question. Was she a victim? Or a perpetrator? Which then begs the further question. Where do our personal liberties end and our civil liabilities begin? A question I think we will be hearing a lot about in the coming weeks.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

-Moral ambiguities about dying and personal freedom seem to change depending upon whether or not your family is the one dying.

-We probably cannot prevent every disease, but what is the acceptable level of casualties we are prepared to suffer before we take deliberate action? I don’t have the answer, I’m just asking the question.

-Always wash your hands. It is simply ridiculous that even in 2020 we need to keep saying that.