Terrible Typhoid Mary
Imagine that you feel perfectly healthy. Out of the blue you
are approached by health officials who believe that you are spreading
deadly illness wherever you go. They demand urine, feces, and blood
specimens. Perhaps they will isolate you, maybe do God only knows
what to your body in the name of public health and medical science.
That's the real life nightmare a cook named Mary Mallon was swept into
back in 1907.
Mallon's nemesis, George Soper, was a sanitary engineer. At the
turn of that century cities were putting them on municipal payrolls to
imrove urban living conditions and cut down on epidemics. In addition
to food waste and trash there were ashes from furnaces and stoves and
equine byproducts. (Did you know a horse can produce 20-30 pounds of
poop and 4 gallons of pee a day? Remind me to stick with cats.)
Contaminated drinking water was a prime route for the proliferation of
some pretty nasty diseases.
"...Working with city governments and city health departments,
sanitary engineers designed apartment houses with better ventilation
and flush toilets. They designed massive sewer systems to dispose of
human waste. They planned public waterworks to supply safe, clean
drinking water. These improvements helped reduce the incidence of
typhoid disease by sixty-seven percent."
Soper was contacted by a well to do woman who rented a house out
to vacationing families. One of them had incurred, between members
and their servants, six cases of typhoid fever that summer. People
were talking. She wanted the house's tainted reputation to be cleared
before the next rental season.
Soper began to suspect that the culprit might be a cook hired
before the onset of the illnesses. He had read about healthy
carriers, people who remained capable of transmitting contagious
diseases after recovering from them. Mallon might be one of these
individuals. Although this concept had won the 1905 Nobel Prize it
had not at that point been proven in the United States.
"If he was right, this discovery would make his career. He
would become famous in medical and scientific circles...His name
would go down in medical history...
Mary was not going to make this easy for him.
Terrible Typhoid Mary is a fascinating narrative in its right.
It also shines a light on an ethical dilemma that shows up whenever a
dread disease is seen as threatening a population. Which should win
out: individual rights or collective safety. In Maine very recently
Governor Paul LePage tried to quarantine a nurse who had cared for
Ebola patients in Africa.
On a personal note, my fall semester writing class was really
excellent. Each of us could do two presentations and get feedback on
them. I presented some poems and an op ed piece.
A great big shout out goes out to Engineers Without Borders, a group
that works on projects like clean water access and sanitary disposal
of human waste in third world countries. Those people are rock stars!
Julia Emily Hathaway
Sent from my iPod