July 26, 2021

Mary Mallon (The Sad & Complicated Story of "Typhoid Mary")


Mary Mallon, known to history as Typhoid Mary, immigrated from Northern Ireland to New York City at age 15, around 1883. She found work as a cook, a well paying job for an immigrant woman and worked for number of different families in the early 20th Century.

In March 1907, civil engineer George Soper burst into the kitchen of the home where she was cooking and told her that she was spreading typhoid via her cooking. He demanded samples of her feces, urine, and blood to test. Mallon, who believed she was in perfect health, chased him away with a carving fork.

Mallon spent most of the rest of her life in quarantine, on North Brother Island, forced to give regular stool and urine samples. She was briefly released, but knowing no other skills, cooked again and was forced back into quarantine.

Although Mallon was the first person in the US identified as a healthy carrier of typhoid, by the time of her second quarantine in 1915, many healthy carriers had been identified, more than 400 in New York alone.  None of the other healthy carriers was forcibly confined, even the other cooks or those who caused more cases and more deaths than Mallon did.

In this episode, Kelly briefly tells the history of Mary Mallon’s quarantines, and interviews Kari Nixon, an assistant professor of English at Whitworth University, who teaches medical humanities and Victorian literature. Dr. Nixon is author of the 2021 book Quarantine Life from Cholera to Covid-19: What Pandemics Teach Us about Parenting, Work, Life, and Communities from the 1700s to Today.

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. Episode image from The New York American (June 20, 1909 issue).

Transcript available at: https://www.unsunghistorypodcast.com/transcripts/transcript-episode-8.

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Transcript

Kelly:

This is Unsung History. The podcast where we tell the stories of people and events in American history that haven't gotten much notice. I'm your host Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then interview someone who knows a lot more than I do. Today's episode is about Mary Mallon. I had heard of Mary Mallon prior to now, but only by the nickname she hated "Typhoid Mary." And it turns out I hadn't known much of her story at all. Mary Mallon was born in what is now Northern Ireland in 1869. She emigrated to the United States at age 15. There weren't a lot of high paying jobs for immigrant women in New York City. But eventually, Mallon was able to find work as a cook, which paid better than many jobs. By all accounts. She was a very good cook. In August 1906, Mellon worked for the family of Charles Henry Warren, a wealthy New York banker, and she went with them to a rented house in Oyster Bay on Long Island. typhoid fever was rare in Oyster Bay. But in late August and early September, six of the 11 people in house came down with typhoid fever. The owners of the house, Mr. And Mrs. George Thompson, were concerned that they would not be able to rent out the house again. And they hired investigators to find out the source of the typhoid. When water samples from pipes, faucets, toilets in the cesspool were all negative for typhoid. The Thompsons hired civil engineer George Soper to investigate further. Soper reviewed the facts of the case and interviewed the Warren family. He learned that shortly before the outbreak, they had hired a new cook Mary Mallon, although they insisted that Mallon had been healthy. Soper traced Mallon's job history, and found that in seven of the eight previous families she had cooked for typhoid fever had developed with a total of 22 cases reported. Mallon knew nothing of this investigation. She had since started working for another family in a park avenue home, and she hadn't left a forwarding address with the Warrens. It wasn't until an outbreak of typhoid in that home that Soper was able to locate her. In March 1907, Soper appeared in the park avenue kitchen, and told Mallon that she was spreading typhoid via her cooking. He demanded samples of her feces, urine and blood to test for the bacteria salmonella Teifi. Mallon who had every reason to believe she was perfectly healthy, chased him away with a carving fork. Soper did not have the authority to demand her to comply. But he convinced the New York City Health Department that Mallon was a healthy typhoid carrier, and she was forcibly arrested as a public health threat. It took five policemen and Dr. Josephine Baker who had to sit on her at one point to get Mallon into the ambulance. Baker reported, "She fought and struggled and cursed. I told the policeman to pick her up and put her in the ambulance. This we did and the ride down to the hospital was a wild one." At Willard Park hospital Mellon was compelled to give samples were massive numbers of typhoid bacteria were found. On March 19th, 1907 Mallon was sentenced to quarantine in a one room bungalow on North Brother Island, where she had to give stool and urine samples three times a week. Despite doctors urging Mallon would not agree to have her gallbladder removed, because she did not believe she was sick. In any case, it was a risky operation that wasn't usually successful in removing the disease. Mallon was also unwilling to give up cooking since there were no other jobs that paid as well. Mallon sent her own samples out for analysis to an independent lab, whose report was that they did not find the typhoid bacteria. She sued for her release, but the judge sided with the health department. In June 1909 Mallon wrote a lengthy letter to her lawyer, the longest surviving letter we have from her. In it, she wrote in part, "there was never any effort by the board authority to do anything for me, expecting to cast me on the island and keep me prisoner without being sick nor needing medical treatment. I have been in fact peep show for everybody. Even the interns had to come to see me and ask about the facts already known to the whole wide world. The tuberculosis men would say 'There she is, the kidnapped woman.' Dr. Park has had me illustrated in Chicago. I wonder how the said Dr. William H. Park would like to be insulted and put in the journal and call him or his wife typhoid William Park." Finally, after Mallon had been quarantined for nearly three years, the city's new health commissioner, Ernst J. Lederle, decided that she could be free as long as she agreed to stop working as a cook. She finally agreed and was released in February 1910. But she was given no training in any other work. Mallon worked for a while as a laundress. Although she made less than half of what she had made as a cook. Eventually, she started cooking again, giving fake class names to evade the authorities. Soper was unable to find her until 1915 when he was called in to investigate a large typhoid outbreak at the Sloan Hospital for Women in New York City were 25 people had been infected and two had died. Mallon tried to flee, but she was found and returned to quarantine on North Brother Island in March of 1915. She remained there for 23 years, until her death of pneumonia in November 1938. Although Mallon was the first person in the US identified as a healthy carrier of typhoid, by the time of her second quarantine, in 1915, many healthy carriers had been identified, more than 400 in New York alone. None of the other healthy carriers was forcibly confined. Even the other cooks or those who caused more cases and more death than Mary Mallon did. To help us understand more about the context of Mary Mallon life. I'm speaking now with Kari Nixon, a literature and medical humanities professor at Whitworth University, who specializes in social reactions to infectious diseases. She is also author of the 2021 book, Quarantine Life from Cholera to COVID-19: What Pandemics Teach Us About Parenting, Work, Life, and Communities from the 1700s to Today.

Kari Nixon:

I am actually in a nursing home right now. My grandma is dying, and we're just, you know, here with her and so I found an extra, I asked them to let me use an empty room. So I could come do this. Feels rather fitting actually, you know, to have that chapter on death. And my family and I have been talking a lot this weekend about like, what a good death is and how to pursue that, and yeah.

Kelly:

Yeah, but you're you're okay to record today? Okay, all right.

Kari Nixon:

Mhm. I mean, it's sad, but she's 91. And you can't have a better death than she's having right now with all of us around her all the time talking to her and reading to her and, yeah, yeah, so it's okay. It's actually I don't know, I hope it's okay, if we're jumping right in, but it actually feels really good to memorialize part of her as part of this journey. But um, I talk in the death chapter about the fact that we need to make death more a part of our life. You know, we were born and we hit puberty, and we get married, and we get pregnant, we have kids, and we die. And so it doesn't-- I don't want to say we're not sad, but it almost feels more like I don't know, like a space of honoring her life and thinking about her life instead of thinking of it as an end. I've been thinking a lot about her legacy. And yeah.

Kelly:

Yeah. Yeah, it's kind of beautiful. I think where I'd like to sort of start this discussion is talking about what medical humanities is, because I think this is a field that a lot of people probably don't even realize exists. And I think it's, it was fascinating. So I had mentioned on Twitter, I loved your book, it was fantastic but I think, you know, I knew this field existed, but I hadn't thought a whole lot about it. And so maybe if you could just talk a little bit about what medical humanities is. And you know, that's sort of directly related to what you were just saying, but you know, what, what that means.

Kari Nixon:

Right, yeah, so the the easiest way to explain the medical humanities is things that we might be familiar with, such as medical ethics, or history of medicine. Those all fall under a big umbrella category of medical humanities. So I mean, it literally is any non scientific, non social scientific field that studies medicine. So there are anthropologists that study medicine. As I said, medical history, bioethics, those all fall under the rubric. In literature, I think we're a lesser understood branch because my PhD is in literature, as I mentioned in the book. And even when I applied to interdisciplinary medical humanities jobs, I feel that there's not a great understanding about what literature brings to the table, those jobs tend to be if they really want to humanist they tend to go to historians. But in literature these days, a medical humanist would be trained in a great deal of history, although I don't claim to be a true, you know, a PhD historian, but we're trained in historiographic thinking, we're trained in philosophy and ethics, well, ethics might maybe not so much applied ethics, but philosophy for sure. And then we're also just trained how to analyze texts. So what we say is anything is a text, I mean, I've just submitted a book at MIT, where I had to figure out how to MLA cite an infant formula can, because we were analyzing the language on there. So we kind of do a mixed bag of literature, history, cultural studies, pop culture, and philosophy. So that's sort of my pragmatic answer that I typically give. But functionally, the way I think of my practice of the medical humanities is that I'm trying to help us see any biases or blind spots we may be having in our research formation now, to make our research better, so it can popularly be, I think, a misconception that the way I approach or the way my field approaches medicine is to sort of debunk science or say that, you know, well, this isn't right, we need to talk about the humanistic side, rather, and I was a data scientist in a path life. So I do know and respect quantitative research design, but what we aim to do is say, you know, let's be aware of the fact that we're all social creatures, we're all impacted by social factors and biases. And if we aren't, if we want to believe that we're perfect, granting fund granting agencies certainly are biased in what they fund and what they're willing to study. And these things shape the research that we're able to make. And so, you know, science in a vacuum may be a perfect science, our science that we make with human hands, hearts, brains, and money is never fully perfect. And so perfect for me, I draw on the past to show almost as a straw man, it's really easy to see 100 years ago, where we can look back and be like other silly people, they thought they could prove racism with science. Okay, well, that's it's really easy to look at them. But now let's use the tools and the theories that helped us see that, and maybe try to help us to see it now so that we don't make those missteps.

Kelly:

So is this then related to the socio scientific discursive cycle?

Kari Nixon:

Yes.

Kelly:

See, I learned from your book.

Kari Nixon:

I think you might be one of my biggest fans that much coming from you. So for people who haven't yet read your book, although they should, can you explain what those socioscientific discursive cycle is?

Unknown:

Yeah, it's such a mouthful, and it's something that I hesitated to put forth in the world for a really long time. Except that I found that my students would walk away with this long term, and say that it was the most helpful way I packaged everything I ever said. So I thought, okay, I think it's a mouthful, I don't know that it's the shortest way to understand things, but my students keep saying that. So I'll go with that. That's a basically a way of saying that the social and the scientific influence each other cyclically forever. I talk about it because I often find that the people I have to work the hardest to convince in anything I'm saying are well educated, lay people that are very pro science. And I'm very pro science. But I think sometimes there can be a bit of a sort of almost fundamentalist insistence that science can't be scrutinized. In fact, I find scientists and doctors agree with me more than anybody because they're at the lab benches. They're at the exam tables, seeing that science and data are messy and sometimes not enough. You know, I mean, people still die. We can't do everything. So this is your scientific discursive cycle. I say, kind of for my lay population that loves science, I say think of it like a double helix. It's circling around each other forever and shaping one another. Neither is ever alone. So when we say that science shapes the social, I mean, this is, I think, perhaps easier for us to wrap our heads around. That means that, um, let's see, trying to think of a good example. Our understanding of networks and connectivity is impacted by the fact that we understand that germs leave little footprint traces from one person to the next. And we've understood that since the 1880s, when microbiology became a popularized concept. But even in the age of COVID, I think we're more hyper aware that, you know, you could shine a black light, or you could imagine, you know, these traces we all leave of skin cells and germs everywhere. So that's a way the science impacts the social. The social impact in the sciences, where it's a little bit harder for people to see. And what I would say, maybe a good example, in the age of COVID, is that, that understanding has led us to think very differently about our tolerance for crowds, and airplanes and touching things. And that is going to lead to science to ask different questions now, such as, how much can we touch something before we leave this kind of viral particle on it? How much airflow through an air conditioner is dangerous of our breath? And, you know, these are things that, and here's where I say I have trouble sometimes with the very pro science crowd, although I am among them. We think of science as so infallible. So, honestly, we see it as a culture, we think of it as existing in this vacuum and just being truth with a capital T is how I teach my students to talk about it. And yet, it is incomplete. And it's only as good as the questions we think to ask. And there were, you know, we talked about airborne versus droplet precautions before COVID. But it was COVID that pushed us to be like, well, exactly how much like what is the difference? When does it become a droplet versus airborne? When do things aerosolized? Is there a risk of aerosolization? When we do CPR, how much gets through a HIPAA filter? I don't know that, you know, I can't tell you exactly which of those questions we had research data on prior to COVID. But I think a lot of you know, some of the skeptics about COVID, their sense that science doesn't know anything came from the fact that we hadn't asked those questions yet. And, and the pro science crowd always seems to think, well, science always has the answers. And so there was this sort of gap in communication where the, you know, maybe COVID skeptics, COVID deniers, COVID hesitants were like "well see there are no answers, science doesn't know." And, and those that were science, believers, I think, in a way had backed themselves into a corner, because we'd never been pushed to think about those questions before. And so that's a way that the social, our new fear of contact is impacting now the things we're thinking to ask or caring to ask. And our previous, you know, blissful ignorance, I suppose about those things, had left us in a situation where we didn't have the answers for those issues.

Kelly:

Yeah. So that leads very neatly then into talking about Mary Mallon, and especially what you call this idea that there has to be a shared reality. And that that is part of why why she is so reluctant to accept the fact that she is harmful to society, so reluctant to accept the fact that she needs to stop working as a cook. So I guess I what listeners really need to understand to understand the story of Mary Mallon is the development of germ theory and how recent it was at the time. So I wonder if we could sort of talk through that a little bit about what that development of germ theory looks like, and why someone you know, in the very early 20th century wouldn't necessarily accept germ theory as you know, sort of given like most of us might.

Unknown:

Right. Um, yeah, so if you want to talk about niche, academic specialty, my niche niche niche niche is the development and popularization of germ theory in the 1880s. So like, this is my thing. That being said, Sometimes I'm not the best at explaining it because I can't see the forest for the trees. So feel free to redirect me but yes, really, germ theory, in my research, I always argue that it was not fully disseminated through the broad public understanding until really the mid 1880s. You could even argue for the 1890s. Of course, scientists knew more about it. But that still was limited to the late 1870s, that scientists were really discovering and understanding germs as a theory, a theoretical model for explaining disease. And at the time scientific journals, well, they really weren't in existence in the way they are now, where they're so specialized. And a lot of scientific findings would be published just in like the New York Times, let's say, their version of The New York Times. So your upper middle class and upper class person would know all about this. So then that takes time to trickle down so that everybody in every class understands it. And I think we see today, right, there's a skepticism sometimes about authority. I think it looks different now. But I think the lower classes and the working classes at that time, probably felt like, you know, "what has a doctor ever done for me, I can't afford a doctor." And now I'm supposed to believe this new theory of how disease happens when, you know, for all intents and purposes, it didn't really change anything. There weren't medicines. I think I say this almost verbatim in the book, you know, by the 1890s, you might know that you had gotten cholera when you started puking. But you were still toast. And maybe almost made it worse, because you were just like, well, I've got 24 hours. And so I think, particularly for the working class, for whom this model, whether they knew it or not, did not change the fact that they had to go into a crowded, poorly ventilated factory day in and day out. I think, you know, there was some obvious, either suspicion or lack of concern, or like, what does this matter to me, you know, kind of a stick it to the man attitude I can envision. And so yes, Mallon living in America, she's 1909 ish. This is, you know, reasonably only 20 years after germ theory, sort of became solidified, at least in the middle class. And I'm trying to think if there's an idea that's only been around with us for 20 years that we could use to parallel, like, a scientific understanding. I don't know maybe this is kind of a silly one that matters less to our lives. But like, is Pluto a planet? I mean, there's all kinds of meanings of millennials being like "you're not taking Pluto away from me."

Kari Nixon:

And, you know, even though that's humor, I often tell my students humor tells us so much about the pulse of the society. And so actually, it might be a good parallel to say, like, I still have feelings about Pluto. And what does it matter to any of us Pluto, it doesn't matter. It's just like, we have a sense of identification with it. And so I think it might actually be a decent parallel for something that both seemed very distant from these people, and yet was asking them to change a formative part of their reality that, you know, essentially asked them to see marching into their factory jobs every day as dangerous and threatening when they still had to do it regardless. So here you have Mallon, Mary Mallon, she's in the American context. She's an Irish immigrant. There was a ton of racism against Irish immigrants at this time. And she had managed to work her way up to a cook position, which was a very, very good job for an Irish immigrant in New York at the time. And yeah, I mean, literally, she's cooking one day and this man bum rushes the door. I mean, from my readings he truly just barges in, I'm not quite sure how he got through the family. Possible the family let him in, I think we know but I'm blanking on the details. Kitchens also had a separate door, so he might have just come in, but he barges into the kitchen where she's cooking and is like, basically is acting kind of like a police man. He's like, stop right now. Like, drop everything, you are killing people. And she chases him out with a carving fork is what the documents tell us. And I think it's probably true. Because that cook was the boss of that space. And I think particularly in a time where we talk about racial justice a lot right now in America. I think we can understand like, that was her space that she had made for herself, where she had a little bit of authority in a very prejudiced society. And, and, you know, a living wage, she was doing better than he really should have been expected for somebody in her demographic. And he comes in here like rambling nonsense about her killed. I mean, it just wouldn't have made sense to her in that moment, I think anyway, and then, you know, he comes back and they talk more and eventually, she does agree to go under quarantine years later, but I just think, yeah, it was a very big ask even once she could be made to understand. I think, you know, it's funny, like what is belief, right? Like we we hear and we listen, and we understand. And is that belief? Or is belief when we deeply believe enough to do something because of that. And and I think, you know, I say in the book like COVID is the perfect parallel. I think each and every one of us is being intellectually dishonest if we don't acknowledge that we've had a moment where we're like, but I feel fine, I should be able to go do what I want. I think there are people of us who have, you know, put that to the side and listen to the authority figures. But I just I think we're being dishonest if we don't say we haven't had a moment where we're like, but I can't go to the grocery store. Like, I'm not sick. I know my body. And so it is a big ask that we're asking people who, for whatever reasons, you know, whether they're in the Black community, who has a lot of historic reasons not to trust the medical establishment, whether they're in the migrant immigrant labor community that's like, it doesn't matter. Like you want food on your table, like I, I got, and I have to feed my family. So I've got to be out there regardless. Or whether you're talking to, you know, a right wing MAGA-hat-wearing, like, that's not a group that I particularly understand well, but I do think it's coming from a similar place of like, why are you telling me this new information about my body that I've never heard before in my life? And then we're just filtering it through the social lens that we already have? Right?

Kelly:

Yeah, I was really struck to in the book, you talk about how we, in this country, so often say, listen to your body, you know, your own body. And this has been a particular struggle for me, I have illness anxiety. And so I've gone through a long, went through a lot of therapy to try to figure out how to essentially not listen to my body. That I had to be like, Okay, well, that one little tiny pain isn't cancer, or maybe is but I don't know that it's cancer. And so thinking through, and it particularly struck me when you said it's, it's cheaper and easier as a society, to put this on individuals, and, and to blame individuals. So Mary Mallon is a perfect example of this, she is very much blamed as an individual for, you know, sort of being the cause of all of our problems, and you know, in popular conceptions, killing 1000s of people and stuff, which of course, isn't true. And so, yeah, I guess maybe if you could sort of expand on that idea, a little bit about the listen to your body and the individual body and thinking about individualism instead of thinking about society. And, you know, what, what it means for to, for us to have sort of public health, which has been such a struggle in the past two years.

Unknown:

Yeah. I mean, the very, very short response I have initially is that, you know, I think the American model has backfired, because we want to just make it about like, we're privatized health care, we, you know, don't have the sort of national networks a lot of countries have for health care. And so we say like, "do your own breast exams," "notice your own body," "you're the one that can protect yourself" and while on some level that's fundamentally true, I suppose. I think in this moment, it backfired then when we were like, Oh, no, your body's wrong. So for the people, you know, that already mistrusted the government or already were suspicious. It's like you're telling me my own, like, literally, our bodies are the only way we have to access reality. So you know, typically, if we say we've lost a grip on what our senses are telling us and that alignment with reality, we call that a mental disorder. It's so we're asking people to go to that place where they can't even trust the evidence of their senses. I think we're, I think it's a little bit weird to not acknowledge that that's a huge ask. And maybe, you know, I really admire that you're willing to share about your anxiety because I actually have the same thing. I'm just now sort of opening up about this in public forums more and more, but I am a survivor of Munchausen by Proxy, which is a disease we see a lot on TV, where a caregiver makes a child ill for their attention as a caregiver. I was never like poisoned, but I was told I was ill a lot and put on a lot of pharmaceuticals all throughout my childhood, which the more I talked to people seems to be the more common model than the sort of sensational things we see on TV. So yeah, I mean, I have had a lot of therapy to I have a ton of illness anxiety, I grapple a lot with a deep fear that I'm dying. And I've had to do a ton of therapy to be like, yeah, don't listen to your body, your body's lying, you're hyper aware of it. And that's ironically to undo 20 years of gaslighting, where, again, I was taught, don't listen to your body, listen to what external authorities tell you about your body. So I think you know, perhaps talking to you, it just made me feel like, in some ways, you know, this is why this has been my contribution to the problem, because I've been through a lot in terms of understanding the body. And perhaps I'm like uniquely able to say this isn't so simple for everyone. And it may be why you were drawn to my reasoning about it. I've heard this from a few other people that were like, I've been struggling so much to just accept risk and deal with it after COVID. And, you know, perhaps that's why like a certain subset has been helped. Because I do come from that particular experience of like, these are huge asks, then I think, you know, if you're very neuro typical maybe it's not a big ask, but both because of my experiences and then the work I've done, where I'm like, well, why have we started telling, you know, girls at 13, to do breast exams when there's a reasonably low risk for most of those girls, and I went through a long period where I had a lot of breast cancer fears. And so I've done a lot of research on the medical history of breast cancer awareness and tracking, and the extent to which those things actually help people. Even the US Preventive Services Task Forces have started to recognize that these things aren't really saving lives. But we still do it. And that's because once you present a risk to someone, because we're very bad at assessing risk on individual human levels. Most people are like, "well, I'm not gonna let it happen to me." Like, I understand the risk is almost none, but like, I'm still gonna do the breast exams, because so it's one thing I haven't you know, I don't have the answer to this, but it's like, how do you retract a fear that you've instilled in the society once you've instilled it in them? So you know, on the one side of the continuum, we have like no your body, surveil your body, track everything. That got people, like you and me, caused problems possibly before COVID it's definitely caused people problems during COVID. In fact, I don't know about you, but I felt like one of the comas people during COVID like, sounds like the rest of y'all haven't been in 10 years of therapy to cope with the constant fear of the invisible things lurking in your body.

Kelly:

Exactly. And I actually saw that I read some articles from like therapists saying their OCD patients and patients with how things were then they were like, yeah, that's another day for me. Now, you all know, what I lived through. But yeah, now I'm seeing it's like, how do we pull back ever from this collective fear we've introduced to people that you may not know your own body, which I think you know, you and I have been dealing with how to moderate that for a while. It sounds like what do we do with a society that may now be like, I can't know anything. And I don't know the answer, but I think we need to speak to that and identify that as the, the problem point, the fulcrum, where things went off balance, and then start to develop and hone our research efforts to say, what do you do? How do you pull people back from that brain and help them and I think it's going to be interdisciplinary. I think it's going to be people like you and I who do history and theories of the body and it's going to be therapists. And there's a great book by a medical humanists that I really respect Cate Belling called Hypochondria. And she just talks about these logical, slippery slopes that it builds on. And I think identifying that as the presenting problem will then help psychotherapists, researchers, clinical psych researchers to develop research questions and protocol that can maybe build us back up a path out of this. So the sort of last thing I think I want to talk about with Mary Mallon is this, you know, as I was trying to sort of tell the the nutshell version to my kids, and, you know, I could see them sort of swinging back and forth between like, Oh, she's a villain to like, Oh, wait, she's not so bad. And then my last point was, there were lots of other healthy carriers and none of them were treated like this. And then immediately they were like, Oh, well, that's terrible. That's not fair to her. You know what what happened here? So why was she the sort of one who was who was villainized in this way? Why if there were so many healthy carriers, were they not all locked up? And of course, there's lots of good reasons for that. But you know, it would have been cheaper for the state to just give her stipend to live on rather than put her up on an island for 20 years. So, you know, what, what do we know about what what might have been going on there?

Unknown:

Okay, well to say one thing, I've never even thought of the stipend solution. And what does that say about our like, hyper, like individualistic culture of like you're on your own? I never even thought of that with all the research I've done. But yeah, it would have been. I don't know, I can't really emotional about Mary Mallon. I mean, I think I say this in the book. But like, because I read a lot of first hand accounts from people in these times, I think you probably do too, they're people to me with like, hopes and dreams. And you know, we know people back in the 1800s would like, burn their diaries at the end of their lives, because there were things they didn't want people to know about them, just like us, you know, and I don't know, I, I have a list. I've been pulled back by other scholars who have helped me and done some of the, you know, big books on Mary Mallon, and I've talked with them. I'm almost like overly sympathetic. I see her as like fully a victim. And then you know, people have stuff like, well, okay, well, she was a lady she could have, you know, maybe behaves a little differently. And I'm like, okay. Yeah, so there's entire books about Mary Mallon. A friend and colleague and just really respected scholar of mine, Priscilla Wald has a whole book called Contagious. And she's a chapter on Mary Mallon. And she and I have chatted, and she was really the one that kind of said, you know, you're being, she didn't say it this way, b2ut she was like, what the dilemma is the dilemma, like, what do you do and who is at fault? And what could that medical examiner have done? I mean, she was killing people. What do you do? And and I don't know that I have the answers. But I think it's so great that you had your kids sit with the uncertainty. So much of the problem that I see both with pro science, anti science, science, you know, whatever, like we, we want it to be clear. And especially I think in America, we want quick, clear, ready made answers to endlessly complex things that are most humans. And I think we get into these errors when we don't put the pause and see, you know, all these nuances of like, well, yes, but also this and there's a phrase in medieval literature called the Sic at non, the Yes but No. And I think it's like, kind of two things can be true, right? But then when you come to public health, it's like, okay, that's fine. But what do we do? And that's why I think the medical humanities can help us think, perhaps outside of the boxes that we unconsciously limit ourselves to, for instance, I had never thought once of a stipend, and I'm a huge proponent of universal basic income. But I'd never retroactively been like they could have given her just the money, you know, she still didn't make that much of the cook. So it wouldn't have taken a lot. Now that I think there was definitely when you talk about a stipend, there was a real resistance to the idea. There was a sense that the poor needed to work. And if you just gave them money, they would go to moral ruin, you know, and so I'm sure that was a big part of it. There's an entire book by Judith Walzer Leavitt on Typhoid Mary. And she says throughout the book, quite repetitively, that she really can't account fully for why what happened to Mallon happened to her. Of course, the fact that she was a female and an Irish immigrant, I think it's undeniable, that Leavitt goes into great detail about some of the histories of other healthy carriers, who I think some of them were Irish, many of them were poor, because at that point, you weren't gonna be able to trace like middle class people in any way. And she, she seems a bit at a loss, you know, like she, she seems to think there's more to it, because there were other poor immigrants. But she doesn't account for it beyond that, beyond female and immigrant. And I guess the best I've been able to make of it is that it was those sort of prejudicial factors, but also also just sort of happenstance, I think she was in the wrong, she was in a place where she could be traced more readily, because she was a cook. And so she wasn't an itinerant worker, in the same way, maybe like a factory or foreign laborer would have been, because she was cooking, although there were other healthy carrier cooks. And then he just locked onto her like, I don't know, I think it became this sort of mission for the doctor. But yeah, we don't, I don't know what are your kind of gut feelings? Since since there are no clear answers. We can speculate.

Kelly:

Yeah, I mean, probably she didn't help herself by reacting violently, initially, you know, and totally understandably, I think if someone burst into my workplace and you know, said I had to give them my stool sample I'd probably react violently too so like I get it. But I wouldn't be surprised if that sort of initial thing is what what made him sort of lock on to to her and want to sort of treat her differently.

Unknown:

Well, now that you mentioned that, I do think that's come up in some of the speculations that it works to reinforce this idea of the recalcitrant poor, who are like sort of immoral, which is what they thought at the time and, and needed to sort of be policed for the betterment of society. I think, her reaction, just, you know, what I've completely overlooked. And you're right, Leavitt talk about that, but it just allowed them to stereotype her in a certain way. And like, think about that, I mean, we are still if you, if you know who she is, then you're told a very certain stereotypical image of her Typhoid Mary, 160 years later, I mean, I try very vehemently to call her Mary Mallon, but if people know who she is, it's not by that name. And like, think about that, can you imagine that? Like, you could be somebody, I don't know, perhaps it's wrong to say that you could have made a bad choice during COVID. Maybe that's too hot of a topic right now. But that 130 years after your death, all anybody would ever know about you is that you made a bad choice once. It just feels like, I don't know, maybe I shouldn't link it to COVID. Maybe that's too sensitive for people, but it's like, there's little things I like about her that she she had a dog, and you know, she loved her pet. And like, there's more to all of us, you know, then...

Kelly:

And she was then defined for all time by a disease that she never even had any symptoms for. Yes. And like by her poop, and like, I just I think, I don't know, I'm not trying to make excuses for anyone. But you know, I think we even say of like, I don't know, people who have committed crimes while on drugs or something. We all we say like, people deserve to be remembered by more than their worst decision. And so I think like, we should be willing to give that to something like healthy or asymptomatic carriers, where it may actually be hard to believe. And they might not really have deeply thought it was a problem, which seems different, you know, like a little than somebody who's, you know, gotten into a negligent car accident or something like that, and then made a more conscious choice. All right, well, people should definitely go get a copy of your book. And I think I've mentioned you but I love the audio book, which I believe is your friend?

Unknown:

Yes. My college roommate. I always wanted to go be a professor. And she always wanted to be an actress. And she's developed a great careers of voice actress. And so it was, it's just great, because maybe as you can attest to listeners, there's a lot of myself in the book. I break the fourth wall a lot. I give hinky dad jokes and she knows how I talk so so it's more of like sort of my personality there. I love the audiobook, too.

Kelly:

Yeah, yeah, it's really great. So people should go get that I will put a link in the show notes and Kari, thank you. This was this was really excellent. And I am. I'm so glad to now know I didn't even know Mary Mallon's last name prior to looking into this, so I'm so glad to know her as a person and to know this story about her.

Kari Nixon:

Thank you so much for having me.

Teddy:

Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode at unsunghistorypodcast.com. To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram, @Unsung__History. Or on Facebook, @UnsungHistoryPodcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email, kelly@unsunghistorypodcast.com. If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.

Kari Nixon

Dr. Kari Nixon is an assistant professor of English at Whitworth University. She teaches medical humanities, Victorian literature, and is forever interested in death, disease, risk, and why we fear them. Dr. Nixon’s work has been shared on Huffington Post, March for Science, and more.

Her first book, “Kept from All Contagion:” Germ Theory, Disease, and the Dilemma of Human Contact will be in print Spring 2020.

When she’s not thinking about disease, she’s spending time with her husband, two daughters, caring for their pets, listening to hip hop, or— okay, she’s still thinking about disease. What? She can multitask.