Typhoid Mary: not an ogre from the Dark Ages

April 3, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism, writers.

Typhoid Mary is not just an expression, and she’s not a ghost from some mysterious past.

She was a real person who lived in the 20th century and whose story is a sad one.

Her name was Mary Mallon. She lived and worked in New York City during the first decade of the 20th century. She was a cook, and during those first years of the new century, she worked in the homes of a number of wealthy families.

Seven of those families suffered typhoid outbreaks, and 1906 she was named by public health officials as the cause. She never had typhoid or suffered any symptoms, but she was a carrier.

She was quarantined and released four years later after promising she would not work as a cook again. Soon thereafter she disappeared.

Five years later, public health officials were again investigating an outbreak of typhoid at a New York hospital when they discovered she had been working there as a cook under a different name.

A newspaper depiction of Typhoid Mary (National Institutes of Health)

Again, she was quarantined, but this time it was for 23 years — the remainder of her life. According to a recent item in the New York Times:

During her life, the public was fascinated by Ms. Mallon. She often appeared in news stories and cartoons, with one depicting her frying skulls in a pan. She was frustrated by the attention and by her captivity, once describing herself as “a peep show for everybody.”


Mallon was born in Ireland in 1869 and came to the U.S. when she was a teenager. She is thought to be the cause of several thousand people contracting typhoid during her working years, and some of those people died. According to the National Institutes of Health, no one ever explained to her the significance of being a carrier of the disease. She eventually accepted her confinement and took solace in her religion.

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