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March 27: Typhoid Mary (1915): Religion v. Sanitation

Typhoid Mary’s Last Quarantine (1915)

It was on this date, March 27, 1915, that Mary Mallon, the Irish-born food service worker who became notorious as “Typhoid Mary” – the first healthy carrier of disease ever identified in the United States – was put into her final quarantine. It is not true, as the urban legends debunking site Snopes points out, that Typhoid Mary caused the deaths of thousands of people. In fact, Mary infected only thirty-three people, and only three of them died. But Mary Mallon’s career as a typhoid carrier is illustrative of the ill-educated, superstitious mindset of those who trust in Divine Providence over science and empiricism – and not just in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but even today.

What could have defeated Typhoid Mary, and many of the epidemics of the past and near-present, was simple sanitation. It was only in the 19th century that Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) discovered the germ theory of disease. While great plagues and pestilences were known to the ancient world, as A.D. White points out in his Warfare of Science with Theology,* the new religion latched onto the supernatural explanation of the ancients, rather than the science of sanitation, with great fervor:

Among many examples and intimations of this in our sacred literature, we have the epidemic which carried off fourteen thousand seven hundred of the children of Israel, and which was only stayed by the prayers and offerings of Aaron, the high priest; the destruction of seventy thousand men in the pestilence by which King David was punished for the numbering of Israel, and which was only stopped when the wrath of Jahveh was averted by burnt-offerings; the plague threatened by the prophet Zechariah, and that delineated in the Apocalypse. From these sources this current of ideas was poured into the early Christian Church, and hence it has been that during nearly twenty centuries since the rise of Christianity, and down to a period within living memory, at the appearance of any pestilence the Church authorities, instead of devising sanitary measures, have very generally preached the necessity of immediate atonement for offences against the Almighty.

“The main cause of this immense sacrifice of life,” writes White, “is now known to have been the want of hygienic precaution…” And what prevented the humankind, from antiquity to the modern, skeptical age, from saving lives through sanitation? It was religion, and its reliance on superstition, as opposed to science, with its reliance on the scientific method and the reproducibility of results. And what stopped science from developing when it was most needed? The answer is not irreducibly complex: there was more profit in the prophets, more cash in creeds, more salvation in sickness than in health, and more truth than poetry in the statement that “pestilences are the harvests of the ministers of God”** – regardless of the harm to humanity.

We do not have far to look to find true believers denying life-saving medical care to their children (Christian Science; opposition to stem cell research), promoting teen pregnancy and the spread of HIV/AIDS (abstinence-only sex education), bombing medical clinics (anti-abortion fanatics), flying planes into buildings (the terrorism of 9/11/01), and many other examples – all due to belief in a sky-god. The medieval answer to disease and pestilence was fetishism – the belief in an inherent value or powers possessed by an object, such as body parts of saints, healing waters, pieces of the true cross, holy shrouds, and so on.

So Typhoid Mary’s belief in Providence rather than prevention had a long, dreadful pedigree. What made things worse was the attitude, typical among believers and the deliberately unschooled and ignorant among us, that if they can’t conceive it, they won’t believe it. Mary Mallon earned her living, from 1900 to 1906, as a successful private cook. It was not until members of a household on Long Island where she worked took ill with typhoid that the health authorities, such as they were at the time, began to investigate. Mary had disappeared and it developed that this feisty cook had a history of leaving households with a bellyful of more than just tasty food.

When Mary was finally located and asked for urine and stool samples, she refused. It was not a stretch to say that anti-immigrant, anti-Irish and class-based prejudice might have played a part, but even though bacteria is not bigoted, Mary rebuffed two more attempts to test her for infection. And why not? She was not sick, even if she was making others sick, and it was little known at the time that a carrier could be asymptomatic. In 1907, the New York City Health Department arrived at her place of employment with police officers. The Health Inspector pronounced her a carrier of infection and Mallon was held in isolation on North Brother Island, quarantined, for three years.

But some thought the isolation of this apparently healthy woman was cruel and unusual punishment. Believing she had learned her lesson about good sanitary practice, in 1910 Mary was released with the understanding that the field of food handling was closed to her. The trust in her good sense did not take into account her contrary beliefs: by 1915, Mary Mallon had changed her name to Mary Brown and succeeded in infecting 25 more people, and causing one death, while working as a cook at New York’s Sloane Hospital for Women. This time public health officials confined her to North Brother Island for the rest of her 69-year life. She died of pneumonia on November 11, 1938, and her body was cremated. Typhoid Mary’s story is not only an argument in favor of good sanitation, something unknown in the Bible, the Qu’ran or any other holy book – it is also an answer to the question, What’s the harm in a little superstition?

*A.D. White, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, 1896, Vol. 2, Chapter 14, “From Fetich To Hygiene”; available in print and online at this link. **The quote is found in White, Warfare, and comes from the French Jesuit Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix (1682-1761).

Originally published March 2011 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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