Typhoid Mary and the Ethics of Forced Isolation

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Photo by Forbes

After years of forced isolation as an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever, Mary Mallon, better remembered as “Typhoid Mary,” regained her freedom(albeit briefly) on February 19, 1910.

The catch? Mary could never work as a cook again.

Mary acquiesced and signed an affidavit stating that she

“is prepared to change her occupation (that of cook), and will give assurance that she will upon her release take such hygienic precautions as will protect those with whom she comes in contact, from infection.”

She also agreed to report in with the New York Board of Health every 90 days.

And with that, she was free to go.

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Photo by Georgia Virtual School

Mary Mallon, a 37-year-old Irish immigrant, was employed as a cook for the wealthy Warren family on Long Island during the summer of 1906. At the end of August, one of the daughters fell ill with typhoid fever. Then, in quick succession, six of the eleven people in the household came down with the disease.

Mr. Warren hired George Soper, a civil engineer with past experience in researching typhoid outbreaks (or so he said, anyway) to look into his situation. Soper was convinced their recently acquired cook, Mary Mallon, was the cause of the outbreak in the Warren family.

Soper took a look at Mallon’s employment history back to 1900. Typhoid had followed Mary from job to job, causing 22 illnesses and the death of one young girl.

Soper approached Mary and requested urine and stool samples to confirm that she was carrying the disease. She told him to take a hike, she felt just fine, and there was no way she had typhoid.

Eventually, New York Public Health Officials got involved. Mary was taken against her will, and it was proven she was the first asymptomatic carrier of typhoid in the United States. From there, she was taken to an isolated cabin on North Brother Island (in the East River near the Bronx), part of the Riverside Hospital.

She went kicking and screaming all the way.

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North Brother Island Photo by Irish Central

So Mary was kept in solitary confinement. She was perfectly healthy and had committed no crime (except not handwashing after using the toilet. Mary said she “didn't see the need.” OK, not a crime, but ew.) She was imprisoned because she was the carrier of a disease that could be fatal to others if they ate food prepared by her.

Mallon’s status as a poor Irish immigrant also figures in. Was Mary the only asymptomatic typhoid carrier? Of course not. Was Mary a convenient, one-stop scapegoat being part of a maligned community? You bet your bippy.

Mary’s case created a plethora of moral and ethical dilemmas for the medical and law enforcement agencies involved at the time. Can we legally — and ethically — imprison and isolate someone solely because they are carriers? Does public health supersede individual rights? When does precautionary action become fear and then the acceptance of tyranny? And who gets to make these calls?


(And hey! Thanks to COVID-19, everything old is new again!)

During her first two years in confinement, Mary sued the Health Department and lost. But in February 1910, a new health commissioner told “Typhoid Mary,” as she was already popularly known, that freedom was hers if she swore to never seek employment as a cook again.

Mary agreed and went her merry way.

In early 1915, typhoid swept through the Sloane maternity hospital as 25 people became ill with the disease. When an employee noticed the resemblance between one of the hospital’s cooks with a picture they’d seen of Typhoid Mary, they discovered Mallon had broken her agreement with the health commissioner.

And let me stop you right now. Before you criticize Mallon, what did the state expect her to do, really? Live off the non-existent settlement the government gave her in the interest of public health so she could lay low and not need to earn a living?

Rather like arbitrarily tossing out $1,200 checks and then sanitizing your hands of any further responsibility.

(And stop bogarting that Purell)

Mary was sent back to North Brother Island. She lived there until she died from a stroke in 1938. An autopsy showed that she was still carrying the typhoid bacteria at the time of her death.

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Photo by Labroots

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is a political junkie and history buff randomly alternating between bouts of crankiness and amusement while bearing witness to the Apocalypse. Come along!

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