Wednesday, June 13, 2007

From Typhoid Fever to XRD TB

With all the fuss over Andrew Speaker, the groom infected with XRD-TB, I’ve pulled out a copy of a 1938 New York Times obituary. The headline of the obit doesn’t give the woman's name. It reads instead: ‘Typhoid Mary’ Dies of a Stroke at 68.

Her name was Mary Mallon. She was never sick, but she carried the bacillus that caused typhoid fever, back before antibiotics. Typhoid is not an airborne disease like TB, but Mary was a cook. Over the years, she infected at least 46 people. Three of them died. Mary was judged to be a threat to public safety, and was sent to Brothers Island to live in isolation.

It’s a fascinating story. Nova did an episode on her. Anthony Bourdain and others have written books about Mary Mallon. We can ask the same question about her that we now ask of Andrew Speaker: was this person a naïve pawn of the system, or a disease-spewing threat to us all?

Mary was the first healthy carrier identified, but within a few years New York doctors and officials realized she wasn’t the last. In fact, hundreds and maybe even thousands were walking the streets. No one tried to apprehend them—impossible! And when these carriers were identified—when an epidemic broke out and families and servants got tested—no one locked them away.

In fact, one carrier, Alphonse, owned a bakery. After being categorized and warned by public health officials not to prepare food, he was caught baking (horrors!) and hauled before a judge. The judge reminded Alphonse that he should not be touching food because he carried typhoid fever. Then he sent Alphonse home. End of story.

So why was Mary locked up on Brothers Island for twenty-six years? Why do we not speak loathingly of Typhoid Alphonse? Well, Mary was a single Irish woman, a fair target of prejudice in those days. But the real reason might be just because she was the first. The original scare and resultant media frenzy was all about her.

Which doesn’t speak well for poor Andrew. Still, he has one thing going for him that neither Mary nor Alphonse could enjoy: a blogosphere that has labeled him and his bride "hotties."

See? Some things do change. We can get more shallow, if we all try.

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