Dinner With Typhoid Mary
September 18, 2003 4:36 AM   Subscribe

Dinner With Typhoid Mary Meet the woman behind the name - she's not the monster you think she was, she didn't kill as many as you thought and learn about her 26 years of exile.
posted by Dome-O-Rama (10 comments total)
Celebrity Chef Anthony Bourdain has also written a book about her.
posted by MrBaliHai at 5:10 AM on September 18, 2003

I've been doing a little poking around on the Internet to try and figure out if there's anything else authorities could have done.

This link says Mary was offered the option of having her gall bladder removed in an effort to rid her of the typhoid bacteria, but she refused. Not unreasonably, since surgery at the time was so risky and might have killed her, and there was no guarantee it would have worked anyway.

Perhaps the authorities could have offered her some free training in a new line of work, since she couldn't make enough money as a laundress. (My link also says she was educated and literate.) But then there were so few jobs open to women at that time. And she was uncooperative and had been responsible for 50 cases of typhoid, 5 of which resulted in death. So... maybe the authorities really did do the best they could under the circumstances.
posted by orange swan at 6:15 AM on September 18, 2003

Dinner With Typhoid Mary
No thanks, table for one please.

This was interesting and thanks for the education lesson. Too bad her past, being an immigrant, came into play here.
posted by thomcatspike at 7:11 AM on September 18, 2003

Well, the first approach was definitely not very "PC". I don't know what to say, but if she didn't cooperate with the authorities she had to be detained.
posted by delmoi at 8:20 AM on September 18, 2003

The utter lack of recognition she seemed to show as people around her came down with typhoid, especially in light of her supposed intelligence (eductaed and litterate), to me shows a lack of concern for other's safety.

While the tactics of telling her may seem heavy-handed by today's standards, I tend to think they were not out of the ordinary for the times. Let's not push revisionist history based on our current morals and due process.

The only thing I could say is that it would have semed more logical to quarrantine all the typhoid carriers together, so at least they would have companionship as opposed to solitary confinement.

I never thought Mary a monster, but she definately still seems self-centered and willfully ignorant.
posted by rich at 8:28 AM on September 18, 2003

I never thought Mary a monster, but she definately still seems self-centered and willfully ignorant.

Lots of stuff that we take for granted now was seen as revolutionary and even crank science in the last century; one of those things was germ theory, which by the end of the 19th century was pretty much accepted by medical professionals but not the "reflexive truth" that people "knew to be true."

Today we know that addiction is a treatable disease, but we persist in locking up addicts because of outdated notions of "will" and "self control." Our children's children will no doubt look back on us and be uncomprehending of our willful ignorance.

I mean, honestly: invisible bugs that live in your poop and make other people sick? Hah.
posted by hob at 8:56 AM on September 18, 2003

Appearing without warning, Soper told her she was spreading death and disease through her cooking and that he wanted samples of her feces, urine and blood for tests.

In a later description, Soper wrote: ``It did not take Mary long to react to this suggestion. She seized a carving fork and advanced in my direction. I passed rapidly down the narrow hall, through the tall iron gate.''

For some reason I'm picturing a strange man in a white coat barging into Mary's kitchen and telling her he wants some urine and feces.

Her reaction is, therefore, perfectly understandable.

(In the end he got her back though, eh? Poor woman.)
posted by Shane at 9:13 AM on September 18, 2003

oh man, i was psyched to get some background info on the original Typhoid Mary... actually, no, i wasn't.
posted by adamms222 at 9:34 AM on September 18, 2003

Shaking my head - there's more to this than a simple case of discrimination against an Irish immigrant:

- Pasteurization and germ theory was fairly solid by the 1860s, at least 20 years before Mary arrived here (never mind by 1906, the date she supposedly started cooking for folks.) Hell, England had introduced compulsory smallpox vaccinations in 1867, nearly 40 years before she started her career. The idea that bacteriology was somehow a new, misunderstood science and that Mary was just a victim of ignorance doesn't fly.

- If Mary was literate and educated, where's the excuse? Even if she didn't understand bacteriology, she could understand basic causality. "Nearly every place you've cooked, people have contracted typhoid." It's not that hard to understand - if she wanted to understand it.

- Even when confronted with basic evidence more than once, she stubbornly refused to stop preparing food for others and continued to repeatedly infect other people with what was then a serious disease; even when sequestered, she provided baked goods for the hospital staff!

This sounds frighteningly similar to the behavior of Gaetan Dugas, the perhaps-wrongly titled "Patient Zero" of AIDS. He behaved in a similar (although more hostile) action - even though he knew of the disease and was advised to stop all sexual contact, he not only continued to have sexual contact with others but deliberately told people the were going to die because of it. He died only two years later, after infecting hundreds directly, and thousands indirectly, with HIV.

As with Mary, we had little confirmed knowledge of retroviruses at the time. We knew, however, that his behavior was threatening the lives of those with whom he came in contact. How would we have treated Gaetan if he had lived beyond 1984? Would we have allowed him to continue spreading a dangerous disease willingly, unchecked, or would we have done what the folks of the early 20th century did - sequestered him to prevent what amounted to deliberate homicide?

With "Typhoid Mary", just as with "Patient Zero", what you have here is an infectious individual who had a stubborn, if not callous, disregard for the lives of others. Unlike other individuals being tracked at that time, she decided she was going to do what she wanted to do, in spite of the fact that as a result she was killing people. I feel pity, not sympathy, for her sequestration.
posted by FormlessOne at 1:05 PM on September 18, 2003

I read Bourdain's book and another more scholarly book on the topic that came out around the same time.

What really amazed me is that the government was willing to spend a bunch of money confining Mary, but they didn't seem to want to find the obvious solution--pay her not to work as a cook.

Or, find her another job that paid equally well.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:44 PM on September 18, 2003

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