Thought for the Week

With the Reverend Susan Pulko Priest in Charge, All Saints’, Hedon, St Andrew’s, Paull, All Saints’ Preston, and St Swithin’s Church Sproatley


PERHAPS not surprisingly, I’ve developed a bit of an interest in infectious diseases recently, and I’ve done some reading about Mary Mallon, or Typhoid Mary as she became known. 

Mary was born with typhoid, but didn’t know she had it because she never experienced symptoms. She became a domestic cook, earning about $50 a week. With no family or husband to support her she lived on the verge of poverty. She took a job in one house after another, as an alarming number of people she cooked for became ill. Suspicions were aroused, and Mary was ultimately traced. 

On March 19, 1907 Mary was sentenced to quarantine in Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island. Tests were carried out on Mary three times a week: some showed the typhus bacterium, some did not. Mary herself continued to claim that she did not have the disease and seems to have genuinely believed this. She suffered a nervous breakdown. 

After nearly three years of quarantine, Mary was released, on condition that she didn’t work as a cook. She got a job as a laundress, but the pay was a mere $20 each week, and Mary simply couldn’t manage. She returned to cooking, this time in hotels, restaurants and hospitals. Infections started again, and Mary was arrested and returned to North Brother Island, where she remained, with occasional day trips to the mainland, until her death from pneumonia in 1938. 

By 1938 nearly 400 other typhoid carriers had been identified in the USA, and not one of them was forcibly quarantined. Certainly, Mary’s hot temper didn’t help her, but she was also an Irish immigrant, poor and (dare I say it?) a woman. 

We’d do well to remember Mary when we think of asymptomatic COVID carriers who do not believe they can infect others, people who simply cannot afford to self-isolate, and those who can’t bring themselves to accept the offer of vaccination.