In the early 1900s, germ theory was a relatively new concept, and many – including doctors – were unaware of how diseases spread. At the time, bacterial diseases like typhoid and dysentery could still wipe out an entire family.
Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant who worked as a cook for affluent New York families. In her wake, she unknowingly left an outburst of typhoid fever, earning her the epithet "Typhoid Mary." By that time, doctors knew the disease was most commonly spread through excrement, and they were able to trace outbreaks by locating the start of an epidemic and following its spread.
By the time of her first quarantine in 1907, doctors determined that Mallon had infected 22 people and caused the death of a little girl. When she was permanently quarantined in 1915, she had ultimately infected an estimated 51 people, at least three of whom died from the disease. Since no healthy carriers had yet been identified, Mallon refused to believe that she – a healthy, middle-aged woman – could possibly be the culprit behind the disease's spread.
Eventually, public health officials in New York traced the outbreaks to the outwardly healthy Mallon, who landed herself in quarantine for life on North Brother Island after numerous fights and blatant refusals. In an almost decade-long battle that struck fear into many city-dwellers' hearts, the legendary lady played a game of disease-riddled cat and mouse with New York's Public Health division.
When Dr. George Soper – the sanitary engineer who identified Mallon as the typhoid culprit – came to take samples in 1907, Malloon outright refused. Allegedly, the cook grabbed a meat cleaver (alternatively a rolling pin or meat fork) and chased him out of her house.
After several more attempts, authorities were able to pin down Mallon. The last attempt ended in a three-hour chase.
After considerable resistance, Mallon was finally taken into custody for stool, urine, and tissue samples. Doctors then confirmed she was indeed ripe with the typhoid bacteria, despite the fact she displayed zero symptoms and remained the epitome of good health.
Public health officials deemed her a threat to society and decided she must be quarantined. Against her will, Mallon was placed in a single-occupancy cottage at the Riverside Hospital for Communicable Diseases on North Brother Island.
Mallon stated to reporters she felt she was being grossly mistreated – like a "leper" – and continuously insisted there was no way she had typhoid.
By 1915, the now-infamous Typhoid Mary had been recaptured and placed under a lifelong quarantine back at North Brother Island. Perhaps it was her intransigence or the fact that doctors truly didn't know how to handle a case like hers, but the health authorities treated Mallon inhumanely.
When she was first tested, doctors discovered her gallbladder was riddled with the salmonella bacteria, and they wanted to remove it. She refused the procedure during her first quarantine, but when they had Mallon in her second custody, they made a second attempt. She managed to prevent the surgery, but she couldn't prevent the doctors from taking over 160 samples from her body during her remaining years there.
She also suffered neglect at the quarantine facility. Mallon was shown off to interns and journalists as a specimen; her doctors limited her interactions greatly, only allowing her to wash bottles in the laboratory.
Throughout the ordeal, Mallon repeatedly denied she was the carrier of typhoid in all of the outbreaks that followed her career; however, she left quietly after each family's disease outbreak and always changed her name slightly for each new job.
While she obviously wanted to avoid association with the press, and she would want to remain in a typhoid-stricken household, Mallon's strange behavior makes some critics wonder if she did actually understand she was somehow a carrier of the disease.