In the years of 1906 and 1907, a woman named Mary Mallon caused a typhoid outbreak in New York City. In the year 2020, something similar happened, again with New York City as one of its epicenters. This time it happened on a much larger scale. The disease was called coronavirus (COVID-19), and just as typhoid fever, it was unfamiliar and at times, deadly.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2012), “Epidemic refers to an increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease about what is normally expected in that population in that area. Outbreak carries the same definition of epidemic but is often used for a more limited geographic area.” In this case, New York City was the limited geographic area in which the typhoid outbreak occurred.
The New-York Tribune reported on June 30, 1909, about Mary’s plea to be released from isolation. It states, “The Health Department has kept her on the island because, it says, she is a menace to the community.” Mary claimed that it was not her who infected the typhoid patients and begged for her freedom. She said about life on the island “It’s very lonely over there. I never speak to a soul. Three times a day a fool of a nurse brings my meals on a tray, sets it down at the door and then runs away.” This makes us think about the loss of quality of life for those who spread diseases but are not actually sick. Mary was healthy and could have lived a normal life had it not been for her unusual condition.
On the same day, June 30, 1909, The New York American, also covered Mary’s court appearance. The title, “Why Should I Be Banished Like a Leper?” makes us question whether or not asymptomatic carriers have a duty to their fellow community members to isolate themselves. At what cost? In Typhoid Mary’s case, she never got her full freedom and lived alone for the rest of her life. She also never stopped being a typhoid carrier. Is it always necessary to sacrifice the one at the salvation of the many?
The New-York Tribune published a full-page article that relays the story of Mary Mallon on July 4, 1909. It starts with the interview of a health department employee where he says that Typhoid Mary was not the only “conveyer” of diseases in NYC. The department knew that many existed, but this particular employee didn’t want to investigate it too closely because of the experience they had had with Mary and all the “trouble” she caused. It also details the findings of Dr. George Soper, the man who discovered that Mary was the source of the outbreak. He spent months investigating the environments surrounding each new typhoid patient and found that the only thing they had in common was each household’s cook, Mary, who strangely enough never contracted the disease though it seemed to follow her. The title of this article is intriguing, “Has New York Many Walking Pesthouses?: Human Beings Who Go About Immune but Spreading Disease Germs.” Here, “pesthouse” refers again to asymptomatic spreaders, though it may not be the most polite way to refer to them.
Also, on the date her court decision was made, July 17, 1909, the New York Times wrote about the Judge’s decision. “The court therefore, said the Justice did not care to assume the responsibility of releasing her,” said the author. Isn’t it interesting how this Judge clearly sympathized with Mary’s situation, but worried about the backlash he might receive from releasing her maybe even more than he feared her “condition” and typhoid fever itself? Again, we see the same narratives of terror and responsibility to community perpetuated.
On July 26, 1909, in a puzzling piece by the New-York Tribune, the writer directly addresses the conundrum of public rights versus individual rights. “It is unfortunate that, in order to secure the majority in their rights, hardship must sometimes be inflicted on the minority or on an individual” states the author. The majority rights they are referring to are obviously that of health and safety to members of the public to which Mary poses a threat. Even so, they defend Mary and uphold that she still deserves respect despite her circumstances. It also details the difference between isolating a smallpox patient who is clearly ill and isolating a person like Mary who is completely capable of living a full life because she has no symptoms of the sickness inside her. The writer advocates for the best medical care to be given to Mary because she deserves at least that and any attempt to cure her.
Are you confused by this article included in the New-York Tribune on February 21, 1910? There was a short period of time where Mary was released from Brother Island, upon the condition that she not work as a cook. According to Marineli et al., Mary did not keep that promise and “as a cook of Sloane Maternity in Manhattan, she contaminated, in three months, at least 25 people, doctors, nurses and staff. Two of them died.” She was placed back into quarantine five years later and never again escaped.
When comparing typhoid fever in the time of Mary Mallon and the current coronavirus pandemic, we see similar themes appear such as fear and anxiety generally, but also surrounding asymptomatic carriers, and the notion that it is your personal responsibility to prevent the spread by isolating yourself. Also, we saw New York City as the epicenter of both diseases. Why? Because there are large groups of people in big cities and spreading of disease is seemingly inevitable. From these two historical events we learn that people haven't changed all that much. We are still afraid of disease and its spread, and we still expect those who contract a disease to isolate themselves until that person is us. At that point, we have two choices. Either to protect those around us and sacrifice our human connection, or see it as an infringement on our rights and go about life as normal. The first choice can lead to increased mental health problems, which I'm sure Mary faced her fair share of, but the second means a potential for putting any person one comes in contact with in harm's way. Ask yourself, which would you choose? Which have you chosen so far in your life? Are you happy with those past decisions? If the answer is no, perhaps some self reflection is required. As we have seen in the year 2020, and I'm sure as the people of New York City saw in the early 1900s, each decision we make has an impact not only on our lives, but on the people we surround ourselves with, loved ones and strangers alike, as well.
Created with images by Aaron Burson - "City Dreams" • Markus Spiske - "Cinical thermometer – Coronavirus disease outbreak COVID-19. Made with Canon 5d Mark III and analog vintage lens, Leica APO Macro Elmarit-R 2.8 100mm (Year: 1993)" • CDC - "This illustration, created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reveals ultrastructural morphology exhibited by coronaviruses. Note the spikes that adorn the outer surface of the virus, which impart the look of a corona surrounding the virion, when viewed electron microscopically. A novel coronavirus, named Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019. The illness caused by this virus has been named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)." • congerdesign - "coronavirus corona quarantine"