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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 Two:
Typhoid, Polio, and Diphtheria: Science and Class Issues

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Professor Hammonds: You raise a good point. It is clear that they wanted to establish a precedent about what to do about carriers. What they're doing is, they have a new kind of issue to deal with: How do you control people who are otherwise healthy, are not sick themselves, but can cause disease? Now, Mary Mallon is saying, "Well, I've never been sick. I don't know what these people are talking about. I don't understand this. They tell me I have these germs, that I give the what? I don't know anything about this." And most people didn't understand it. And it's a very abstract notion for most people that there is such a thing as a carrier, right? And so how is the health department going to have to make this abstract notion concrete? In part because, as I said, the germ theory, as it is applied to public health, changed the focus of public health to individuals' behavior and their responsibility in transmitting infectious diseases. Yes?

Steven Seto: The evidence was brought to the board of health. They didn't go search it out. And from the—Given the information that I have, it didn't sound—it didn't seem as if they went out to look for anybody else afterwards. I mean, there were still over 4,000 cases of typhoid while they had Mary in isolation.

Professor Hammonds: What happens is, they began a much more concentrated health education effort to get those people who work as cooks, who may have been exposed to typhoid, to wash their hands; to really begin to mandate that people who work in restaurants, around food, who may have been exposed to typhoid, to wash their hands. You've all seen those signs in the bathrooms. So they begin this kind of effort because they know they can't go hunting for these carriers. They don't have anywhere to put these people. They don't have the manpower to trace whether each individual carrier is responsible for particular outbreaks of disease unless something happens, and they, you know, they have to intervene. But by and large, they don't have the manpower to track down all these people.

So again, as I say, in a strange kind of paradoxical way, Mary becomes this sort of symbol for them of what can happen. But they know that they can't do this to everyone, so they institute health education efforts to encourage the rest of the public to comply with the kinds of things that are going to prevent the spread of these kinds of diseases. Yes?

Matthew DeBoer: Do you think that Mary posthumously became a martyr, and if so, what did her martyrdom represent?

Professor Hammonds: Yeah, I do think she becomes a martyr, in the sense that what would most of us know about "Typhoid Mary," just sort of a general kind of popular view? It's almost as if she was this woman who deliberately went about spreading disease and trying to hurt people, you know? Even the cartoons that appear about her in newspaper accounts at the time show her as evil and malevolent in some kind of deliberate way, right? And I think the fuller context of the story shows that she didn't set out to spread typhoid. She didn't set out to kill people. She didn't do it maliciously. I think after the evidence is presented to her, she had a lot of doubts about the evidence. And I think the fundamental basis for her doubt is simply that she was never sick. And it's very hard, I think, for people to understand that you could transmit disease when you're not sick. She couldn't remember ever having typhoid. Here the authority is telling her this. You know, it sort of gets picked up and exploded into this other set of issues, and I think she comes down through history as, you know, "Typhoid Mary," as sort of the evil one.

There is another case that we might look at as just counter to that is in diphtheria, which is childhood disease. In the case of diphtheria, many, many adults are carriers. There are thousands of diphtheria carriers in New York City. And one doctor says, "Well, I just think, you know, we just need to set up a testing thing on every corner and just test all these people down here in the Lower East Side, in the tenements, and any of them that have diphtheria bacilli in their throats, they can't be servants; they can't be teachers; they shouldn't be able to work in candy stores," where it killed children, anywhere that they could have any contact with children. And that's what he wanted to do. And of course the public health officials said, "We can't do that. How are we going to do that?"

Yvonne Powell: It is rather interesting how impotent the judicial system appears to be, however, in this process. I mean, the writ of habeas corpus is not—is overturned. The 14th Amendment is absolutely ignored. The judiciary is almost an agent of the public health department.

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