Bourdain-Anthony, Health, History, Memoir, Non-Fiction, social commentary, True strange Happenings

#555 Typhoid Mary By Anthony Bourdain

Typhoid Mary By Anthony BourdainTyphoid Mary By Anthony Bourdain

Back in the day when everything could, and often did, kill you, typhoid was a huge problem. We’re not talking about the flu, which was also pretty deadly back in the day, we’re talking about a severe bacterial infection. It’s actually caused by a form of salmonella.

Before people were certain as to what salmonella actually was and how it was transmitted, people had all kinds of crazy theories of how one actually became ill from typhoid.

Mary Mallon was a clean cook, or so she thought, but unbeknownst to her, she was a carrier of typhoid. Mary was asymptomatic; she appeared healthy, and, in fact, was quite healthy for her age, as demonstrated by her resistance to being apprehended. She fared better than many of the time, but that didn’t stop one man named George Soper from tracking her down after he figured out that Mary was the common denominator in a string of typhoid illnesses in well-to-do households.

Mary refused to believe that she could be a carrier of the disease, but she was. Soper was able to convince the local health authorities to detain Mary in a hospital for testing; it was no small feat as Mary put up a heck of a fight. She tested positive for typhoid.

She was then sent to North Brother Island. The island is currently abandoned, but the ruined hospital is still there. Nobody wanted sick people around, so they were sent to live on islands away from everyone else. Mary stayed there for some time, but a court case ensued.

Was it legal to keep her there? What were her rights? What about other typhoid carriers–were they detained as well?

Mary did not infect anybody maliciously; she simply didn’t know that she carried the disease, nor did she understand how the disease was transmitted.

Mary was able to leave the island after three years providing she never became a cook again. Cook money was hard to come by in other professions, for women anyway. Mary soon returned to being a cook, under assumed names, and outbreaks of typhoid once again followed Mary around. The last outbreak was at a hospital of all things. Mary was again detained, and again, taken to North Brother Island, where she lived out the rest of her days doing little odd jobs before suffering a stroke and remaining bed ridden for six-years before her death.

Mary’s reputation was ruined permanently by being called Typhoid Mary and being depicted as a cruel woman who infected people on purpose and she spent the rest of her life in confinement because of this.

What I liked

I’ve never read anything Anthony has written before and I’m impressed. They haven’t given the man at least two television shows because he’s an idiot; he knows what he’s going on about. He researches things fairly thoroughly and I’m impressed. I was quite taken with the idea that Anthony went to visit the grave of Mary in his research.

I believe Anthony has done Mary justice. He has depicted her as human and not just some she-monster who found joy in infecting people with typhoid.

I haven’t done a lot of reading about Mary. What I knew of Mary before this, I had learned from various television documentaries on illness and contagion. This book was the most complete version of Mary’s story that I have personally encountered, thus far. I appreciate Anthony for doing so well with it.

I also really like Anthony’s attitude about the whole thing. He doesn’t shy away from telling it how it would have been. He put some color into Mary’s story; it wasn’t just the facts presented in a dry manner.

What I didn’t like

I have nothing bad to say about Anthony or about how he told this story.

I have bad things to say about how Mary was treated. I have concerns, really.

I get why she was locked away. She was infecting people, and while not doing it on purpose, she didn’t exactly follow the guidelines that were handed down to her. With a person like that, what are you supposed to do? Are you really just supposed to let them live out in the world, continuing to infect people, and continuing not to follow orders?

In our modern-day typhoid is not that big of a deal; it could still kill you, but it’s not at the top of our illness concerns list. Ebola, as deadly as it is, isn’t even as large of a concern as it once used to be. Despite our ability to cure some diseases and bring people safely through others, there are still diseases we’re scared of. If you have a contagious disease and you go around spreading it with no regard to other human life, then, yes, you can be locked away.

If you have AIDS and you go around having unprotected sex, you can be charged with assault with a deadly weapon; that’s no joke. Why would we keep you out in the general public, if you were doing that? You’re risking our lives because you refuse to follow the rules.

I understand why Mary was locked away, but I still feel it was done improperly. They gave her a chance, she didn’t follow orders. She shouldn’t have been locked away for so long in the first place without a good and proper reason. Someone should have explicitly sat this woman down, with facts, and said, “You have typhoid. You are spreading it around by cooking for other people. It is dangerous to others to have you out and about spreading this disease around, which we currently don’t have a completely functioning vaccine for. We need you to stay here.”

She probably wouldn’t have been happy about it, nobody would, but someone could have treated her like a human being and explained things rationally to her. George Soper was apparently very bad at being rational and tactful.

Before releasing Mary back out into the world, for the time that she was out, they should have given her a replacement place in the world. She needed a new job, of equal pay. She needed a place to stay. Somebody should have given the poor woman a new name.

They took away her life, but didn’t want to give her anything to replace it with. Hooray we saved everyone else! …but we screwed over this one woman to do it, and, well, who cares…


I enjoyed this look at Mary’s sad life.

Weigh In

Should Mary have been contained?

Is it right to contain diseased persons, without proper explanation in fears of the disease transferring to the larger population?


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