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Primary Sources - Workshop in American History Disease and Historyhomesitemap
Introduction -Link Before You Watch - link Lectures and Activities Classroom and Applications - Link
 

Workshop 7:  Lectures & Activities


Lecture Transcript One:
Infectious Diseases in the 19th-Century City

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Continued…


And that brings us to the case of "Typhoid Mary." Typhoid was a significant problem in American cities. It is a water- and food-borne systemic bacterial infection. It is important to know what it looks like when people saw it. Its symptoms are sustained fever, headache, malaise, gastrointestinal problems. A few days following exposure, the patient experiences a headache, loss of appetite, chills; and about 10 percent of those who are infected with it die. It struck mostly in cities that had untreated water supplies, and thus, it responded well to the implementation of water-filtration systems and sanitation. But as cities began to build these systems, they still saw typhoid, and they couldn't understand it. Why do we still have typhoid? We've cleaned up the water; we've cleaned up the sewage. And it turns out that the answer was that there were typhoid carriers—people who had either been exposed to the disease and had an outbreak of it and recovered, or those who do not remember being sick at all, but who nevertheless carry typhoid bacilli in their bodies and could infect other people.

The most famous germ carrier, as you know, was an Irish immigrant cook, Mary Mallon, and she has the distinction of being the first typhoid fever carrier to be identified and charted in North America. Mallon worked for several wealthy New York-area families, and in the summer of 1906, she found employment in the rented summer home of a New York banker. When typhoid fever struck six people in the household of 11, the owner of the home, thinking that he would be unable to rent the property again unless he solved the mystery of these cases, hired a civil engineer whose name was George Soper, known for his work on the epidemiology of typhoid, to investigate the outbreak. And Soper's report ruled out all the factors that might be contributing to these cases; that is, contaminated water or milk and other possible sources. And he concluded that the prime suspect had been the cook. By tracing the cook's job history and outbreaks of typhoid, he finally identified Mary Mallon.

Now, when Soper met Mallon and tried to explain to her that she was a carrier of the disease, she threw him out of her house. Soper then turns to the New York City health department, showed them his data, and convinced them that Mallon should be brought in to have her urine and feces tested for the presence of the typhoid bacillus. And in 1907, she was forcefully apprehended by city health officer S. Josephine Baker with the help of the police. She was taken against her will to the Willard Parker Hospital, which was New York's hospital for contagious diseases, and there they subjected her to careful laboratory tests. And the results showed high concentrations of typhoid bacilli in her feces. She was kept in health department custody in an isolation cottage on the grounds of the Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island. In 1909, she unsuccessfully sued for her release. In 1910, she was freed, but she was arrested again later after officials traced a house-hospital outbreak of typhoid fever to her kitchen. And this time, when they apprehended her, she was placed in custody until her death in 1938. She lived in health department-imposed isolation for a total of 26 and a half years.


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