Out of all of the historical accounts of food safety and public health the story of “Typhoid Mary” is one that is worth repeating to anyone who is learning about the subject.
Typhoid is a particular type of salmonella that can be spread via the faecal-oral route. It can easily be passed on via preparation and service of cold foods; due to poor personal hygiene.
Mary was born in Ireland in the late nineteenth century. In her twenties, along with many others, she emigrated to New York and gained employment as a domestic cook. Each residence Mary worked at people would become sick as they were struck down with Typhoid. Mary moved from family to family; leaving a trail of destruction in her wake.
Mary Mallon was asymptomatic (did not present any symptoms) which is one of the reasons why this bug can be so problematic. Mary would not have known she was contagious. People who are infected with diseases and who have the potential to pass on infections are known as “carriers”.
After several families (and their domestic staff) were affected she was eventually identified as an asymptomatic carrier after a private investigation was launched. She was subsequently detained under medical authority for a period of three years. She was released under the condition that she no longer cook for people. However, Mary changed her name to avoid being noticed and began again to work as a cook.
She was identified after an outbreak occurred in a hospital she was working in suffered from a Typhoid outbreak. The authorities detained Mary once more; and was not released.
Until her death Mary Mallon believed she had been detained unnecessarily and, at the time, many agreed. Today, we can detect and treat illnesses much more easily and accurately. We are also able to screen sufferers and close contacts to determine whether they are carriers. However, the exclusion of workers from certain roles and responsibilities remains an important tool that is used against the spread of disease. Those who prepare food or who interact with vulnerable people are examples of those who must take their personal hygiene and fitness to work most seriously. In light of the recent pandemic people are more aware than ever of the need to isolate potential carriers; the story of Typhoid Mary therefore is just as relevant today that it was a century ago.
Read more about Mallon.