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What Typhoid Mary's Story Tells Us About COVID-19 Tensions

NOEL KING, HOST:

There's a pandemic-related tension in this country between our personal choices and the public good. NPR's podcast Throughline has been looking at a time in history when the same thing was happening. Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei have the story of Mary Mallon. She was an Irish immigrant who wouldn't cooperate with public health officials, earning her the nickname Typhoid Mary.

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RAMTIN ARABLOUEI: In 1906, Mary Mallon was working as a cook for a family on a summer vacation outside of New York City.

RUND ABDELFATAH: But not long after she got there, something strange happened.

ARABLOUEI: Nearly half the household fell ill with typhoid fever. The owners of the vacation home needed to find out why and how their renters got so sick. So they hired a man named George Soper to help them figure out.

SUSAN CAMPBELL BARTOLETTI: He referred to himself as an epidemic fighter. I love that. He's like this superhero.

ARABLOUEI: This is Susan Campbell Bartoletti, author of "Terrible Typhoid Mary," a true story of the deadliest cook in America.

BARTOLETTI: And he begins to do something that today we call contact tracing.

ARABLOUEI: George basically wanted to be the Dr. Fauci of his time, and he realized that the bacteria that causes typhoid fever could have been passed through food and the person making it.

ABDELFATAH: He started visiting other households where Mary had worked, interviewing people.

BARTOLETTI: There were 22 victims in all.

ABDELFATAH: Which led him to the theory that Mary was a healthy and asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever.

BARTOLETTI: He believes he has found the first healthy carrier in the United States, and he really wanted to stake his career on this.

ARABLOUEI: The next thing George did was show up to Mary's new place of employment to explain that she might be sick with typhoid even though she felt perfectly healthy.

BARTOLETTI: Well, she becomes outraged, and when he presses her that he wants her to give him samples of blood, urine and stool, she grabs a carving fork and she swears and she attacks him and he fled. He fled.

ABDELFATAH: He started building a case against her. He needed to convince others, especially the New York Health Department, that Mary was a serious public health threat.

BARTOLETTI: He now starts to call her a living culture tube, a chronic typhoid germ producer, and he uses this language in order to get the city department of health to allow him to go after her.

ARABLOUEI: It worked. With the city behind him, George made another attempt to confront Mary and get her tested. But this time, Mary is the one who fled.

BARTOLETTI: And Mary charges out the door. She scales a fence, and they search for hours. And finally when they just about ready to give up, one of the police officers sees a little bit of dress sticking out of a closet door. And they realize that looks familiar. Mary'd been wearing that. And they discover her inside the closet.

ARABLOUEI: They arrested her and brought her in for testing against her will.

BARTOLETTI: And they discover, yes, indeed, her body is harboring this bacteria that produces typhoid fever.

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BARTOLETTI: She is now sent to the Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island. And, again, she doesn't understand. She feels that she's kidnapped.

ABDELFATAH: Which is pretty understandable. I mean, regardless of what the test results said, Mary didn't feel sick and therefore refused to believe she was sick. At that time, hardly anyone knew anything about this idea of a healthy carrier.

BARTOLETTI: She did not trust medical science. She really believed that they were trying to use her for medical experiments.

ABDELFATAH: Living alone in a cottage on what was nicknamed quarantine island, Mary's worst fears were coming true. Doctors started to turn routine checkups into experiments trying out new drug therapies on her hoping to find a cure.

BARTOLETTI: They were trying to disinfect her GI tract, and the one drug was a combination of ammonia and formaldehyde.

ARABLOUEI: Then after nearly three years in quarantine, New York City hired a new health commissioner. He decided Mary should be released, but there was a catch.

BARTOLETTI: She has to promise that she will not cook.

ARABLOUEI: Even though Mary was still fully convinced she was never sick, she signed the affidavit. And with that, she was free. A year went by, then another and another, and then she disappeared.

BARTOLETTI: Nobody knows where she's gone.

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BARTOLETTI: Sometime after that at the Sloane Hospital for Women, typhoid fever has broken out. And there are 25 cases. Mary was working at that hospital under a pseudonym.

ABDELFATAH: Mary had broken all terms of her agreement. She was working as a cook in a hospital and trying to fly under the radar using the name Mary Brown. In just three months working at Sloane, she spread typhoid to 25 people, killing two of them.

BARTOLETTI: She was sentenced again to Riverside Hospital, and now she's resigned. She's going to stay there. She knows she's going to live her life out there.

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ABDELFATAH: Mary was pretty stubborn in her resistance to getting testing and and, of course, she had her reasons. But I'm wondering, was there a failure of communicating with her on the part of, like, the authorities that contributed to her heightened fear, you know?

BARTOLETTI: Oh, I believe so. When George Soper appeared in that kitchen and accused her, she was insulted. And she didn't want to lose her work, her only means of employment. And I think that a lot of it is meeting a person where that person is. Maybe he needed to explain it to her differently. Maybe he shouldn't have gone in expecting her to understand right away what he was talking about. It frightened her. Maybe for someone to show up in your kitchen and say I need some urine and stool samples in the year 1906, that was a pretty personal request.

ARABLOUEI: Ultimately, Mary was traced to a total of about 50 typhoid cases and three deaths. This is tragic, no doubt, but Mary was forced to spend the rest of her life in quarantine. And her story gets at the very complexities of balancing public health and individual freedoms that we're still dealing with today.

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KING: Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah host Throughline. They did a whole episode on Typhoid Mary. You can find that wherever you subscribe to podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.