Today’s factismal: Typhoid Mary killed at least three people and made another fifty-one ill, just by cooking without washing her hands.
The woman who would come to symbolize the need for effective medical laws was born 144 years ago today. Originally known as Mary Mallon, she would eventually come to be recognized the world over as “Typhoid Mary”, the very public face of a disease that was considered one of the world’s worst scourges.
Typhoid fever is a disease caused by bacteria that live in your gut. It lasts about a month and causes inflammation of your intestines (which isn’t nearly as much fun as it sounds like) along with a high fever, a slow heartbeat and bloody nose; during the later stages, it also causes diarrhea, which leads to dehydration and is the most common cause of death. For most of the sufferers, typhoid fever is a temporary inconvenience but it can be deadly. Every year, it infects an estimated 24 million people and kills about 200,000 people. Fortunately, the introduction of chlorination to the American water supply has reduced the local infection rate to near zero.
But back in 1900, there was no water in the water supply. Not that it would have done much good, as Mary didn’t believe in washing her hands. Not after she used the restroom and not before she started cooking. (I will now pause so you can all say “Eew!”). And, to make matters worse, Mary’s body had come to an arrangement with the bacteria that caused typhoid; they wouldn’t kill her and she wouldn’t worry about them. As a result, Mary was the perfect carrier. She’d start working for a family as a cook and then leave as soon as they all started getting ill. Over a period of seven years, she worked for ten families all of which had people come down with typhoid fever. When she was finally identified as the carrier by the local doctors, she refused to be treated for typhoid or to give up cooking. As a result, she was held as a “medical prisoner” for three years until she promised to stop working as a cook.
Of course, her promise lasted just long enough to get her out of isolation. Once she was free,s he started cooking again and people started getting sick again. As before, every time someone became ill, she’d quit and find a new job. Her continual job changes made it more difficult for the medical establishment to find her but they finally did in 1915. This time, she was confined for life. Though she was allowed visitors, they were forbidden to touch her or to accept so much as a glass of water from her hands for fear of spreading the disease. Her intransigence did have one good side-benefit; it forced the federal and state officials to recognize the danger that a carrier could pose to unsuspecting innocents. Thanks to her unwashed spree, there are now laws on the books of every state governing when and how a person can be held to prevent the spreading of a disease.
Of course, typhoid fever isn’t the only disease that can be spread by contaminated water. If you’d like to help scientists and medical practitioners by monitoring the water quality and purity in your neighborhood, then flow over to the World Water Monitoring Challenge: