Super Spreader: The Strange Story of Typhoid Mary

Mary Mallon, an unwitting typhoid carrier and unwilling hospital patient, in the early 1900s.
Mary Mallon, an unwitting typhoid carrier and unwilling hospital patient, in the early 1900s.
CBS Sunday Morning, YouTube

In the winter of 1906, Mrs. George Thompson called upon Dr. George Soper, known around New York as an “epidemic fighter,” to investigate the source of a typhoid outbreak that had occurred among renters in her Oyster Bay summer home several months prior.

After finding no issue with the well, the outhouse, the food supplies, or any other part of the property that might have generated germs, Soper considered the possibility that the carrier could have been a healthy person—an idea that wasn’t widely accepted at the time. By process of elimination, he landed on a likely culprit: the cook, a 37-year-old woman named Mary Mallon.

typhoid mary newspaper article from 1909
An article published in The New York American on June 20, 1909.
Lupo, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Mallon, described by the other servants as “not particularly clean,” had arrived at the Thompson home on August 3, 1906. Just weeks later, between August 27 and September 3, six out of the house’s 11 occupants had contracted typhoid fever. Though most of her dishes were hot and prepared at temperatures that would have killed any bacteria, Mallon had served ice cream with fresh peaches one Sunday, which some of the house guests ate with gusto.

Before searching for Mallon herself, Soper followed her trail of employment all the way back to September 1900, unearthing a total of seven households in New York and Maine that had suffered typhoid outbreaks during Mallon’s tenure.

“In nearly every instance, a well-to-do and socially prominent family, soon after moving from the city to the country for the summer, experienced an outbreak of typhoid fever. In no instance had its cause been satisfactorily explained,” Soper recounted in the Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine. "The cook always left soon afterward. She had never been suspected."

Soper decided it was time to track Mallon down.

A Mean, Unclean Quarantine Queen

In early 1907, Soper paid Mallon a visit in Manhattan, in an old-fashioned house on Park Avenue and 60th Street where she was working, once again, as a cook.

“I was as diplomatic as possible, but I had to say I suspected her of making people sick and that I wanted specimens of her urine, feces, and blood,” Soper wrote.

Mallon seized a carving fork and chased Soper from the premises.

After another unsuccessful attempt to reason with Mallon, Soper asked New York City’s Department of Health to intervene. So Dr. Sara Josephine Baker came calling at the Park Avenue estate, and Mallon made a run for it, evading capture for three hours before police found her in a neighbor’s shed and deposited her into an ambulance.

“The ride down to the hospital was quite a wild one,” Dr. Baker recalled.

Mallon was taken to an isolation ward at Willard Parker Hospital, and doctors tested her feces three times a week between March 20 and November 16, 1907. Salmonella enterica enterica serovar Typhi, the bacterium that causes typhoid, was found in nearly every sample. Soper visited Mallon at the hospital to explain why she had been confined for so long (and also to determine the possibility of securing her release).

“When you go to the toilet, the germs which grow within your body get upon your fingers, and when you handle food in cooking they get on the food. People who eat this food swallow the germs and get sick,” he told her. “If you would wash your hands after leaving the toilet and before cooking, there might be no trouble. You don’t keep your hands clean enough.”

Mallon, frustrated and lonely, wasn’t very receptive to his advice, and refused to give doctors permission to remove her gallbladder, which they suspected was the source of the germs. There’s a good chance that this was true, since recent scientific studies have shown that many asymptomatic typhoid carriers store typhoid bacteria in their gallbladders. When their gallbladders empty bile into their small intestines, some of the bacteria goes with it, and then gets excreted in their stool.

“No knife will be put upon me,” Mallon told the doctors who requested to remove it. “I’ve nothing the matter with my gallbladder.”

typhoid mary cartoon
An illustration of unknown origin showing how Typhoid Mary spread bacteria through food.
National Museum of Health and Medicine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Soon after that meeting, Mallon was relocated to a bungalow near Riverside Hospital on New York's North Brother Island. Her quarters, originally built for the superintendent of nurses, were more spacious and more comfortable, but Mallon was still treated like a dangerous outcast, isolated from the rest of the island’s inhabitants.

Two years after her arrest on Park Avenue, Mallon sued the Department of Health, claiming that she had been imprisoned without due process of law—in fact, she hadn’t even been accused of a crime. Dr. William H. Park, the bacteriologist who had tested Mallon’s feces, took the stand to explain how Mallon—though seemingly healthy herself—was an asymptomatic typhoid carrier. Both sides presented compelling arguments, but the court simply didn’t want the responsibility of determining whether Mallon was fit to rejoin society.

They dismissed the case altogether, and a defeated Mallon returned to North Brother Island.

Life As a Culinary Renegade

In February 1910, Riverside Hospital finally decided to release Mallon on the condition that she promise not to work as a cook and “take such hygienic precautions as will protect those with whom she comes in contact, from infection.” She agreed to the terms and left the island.

What she didn’t do was keep her word. For the next five years, Mallon flitted from kitchen to kitchen in the area, introducing herself as “Marie Breshof” or “Mrs. Brown.” She cooked in a restaurant on Broadway, a hotel in Southampton, an inn in Huntington, and a sanatorium in New Jersey. Typhoid followed Mallon wherever she went, but she never stayed in one place long enough to rouse suspicion.

That is, until 1915, when Dr. Edward B. Cragin solicited Soper’s help in detecting the cause of a typhoid outbreak at New York’s Sloane Hospital for Women. More than 20 people had fallen ill, and the other servants had taken to calling the cook “Typhoid Mary”—a sobriquet that newspapers had used for Mallon during her solitary confinement.

After Soper positively identified the woman he knew to be Mary Mallon, the hospital alerted the Department of Health, and Mallon was whisked right back to North Brother Island. This time, she didn’t resist.

The Lonely Legacy of America’s Most Famous Asymptomatic Carrier

Mallon lived out her remaining 23 years in the lonely riverbank bungalow, processing tests in the hospital laboratory and making occasional sojourns to Queens to visit a family she was friendly with. According to Soper, “they were not particularly glad to see her.” She suffered a stroke in 1932, and passed away at age 69 on November 11, 1938. Only nine people attended her funeral at St. Luke’s Catholic Church in the Bronx.

In total, Mallon was officially responsible for infecting 53 people with typhoid—three of whom died—though there were likely many more that went unreported. While her commitment to good hygiene may have been lacking, the fact that she was so often treated like a pariah no doubt exacerbated her unwillingness to cooperate with doctors and other health officials. For many, including Mallon herself, it was simply difficult to believe that a perfectly healthy person who had never even been afflicted with a terrifying disease could somehow pass it on to dozens of others.

“It was to be Mary Mallon’s fate to clear away much of the mystery which surrounded the transmission of typhoid fever and to call attention to the fact that it was often persons rather than things who offered the proper explanation when the disease occurred in endemic, sporadic and epidemic form,” Soper wrote.

Mallon, however begrudgingly, charted a new path for scientists studying communicable diseases—and taught the rest of us just how important it is to wash our hands.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

Buy it: Amazon

3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

Buy it: Amazon

4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

Buy it: Amazon

5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

Buy it: SlumberCloud

7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

Buy it: Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

How the Scientist Who Invented Ibuprofen Accidentally Discovered It Was Great for Hangovers

This man had too many dry martinis at a business lunch.
This man had too many dry martinis at a business lunch.
George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images

When British pharmacologist Stewart Adams and his colleague John Nicholson began tinkering with various drug compounds in the 1950s, they were hoping to come up with a cure for rheumatoid arthritis—something with the anti-inflammatory effects of aspirin, but without the risk of allergic reaction or internal bleeding.

Though they never exactly cured rheumatoid arthritis, they did succeed in developing a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that greatly reduced pain of all kinds. In 1966, they patented their creation, which was first known as 2-(4-isobutylphenyl) propionic acid and later renamed ibuprofen. While originally approved as a prescription drug in the UK, it soon became clear ibuprofen was safer and more effective than other pain relievers. It eventually hit the market as an over-the-counter medication.

During that time, Adams conducted one last impromptu experiment with the drug, which took place far outside the lab and involved only a single participant: himself.

In 1971, Adams arrived in Moscow to speak at a pharmacology conference and spent the night before his scheduled appearance tossing back shots of vodka at a reception with the other attendees. When he awoke the next morning, he was greeted with a hammering headache. So, as Smithsonian.com reports, Adams tossed back 600 milligrams of ibuprofen.

“That was testing the drug in anger, if you like,” Adams told The Telegraph in 2007. “But I hoped it really could work magic.”

As anyone who has ever been in that situation can probably predict, the ibuprofen did work magic on Adams’s hangover. After that, according to The Washington Post, the pharmaceutical company Adams worked for began promoting the drug as a general painkiller, and people started to stumble upon its use as a miracle hangover cure.

“It's funny now,” Adams told The Telegraph. “But over the years so many people have told me that ibuprofen really works for them, and did I know it was so good for hangovers? Of course, I had to admit I did.”

[h/t Smithsonian.com]