Typhoid Mary: The Debate About Super-Spreaders and Autonomy

In the Fall of 1906, Mary Mallon, a cook, was found to be "patient zero" for a typhoid outbreak leading to her exile. Public health experts blamed rare typhus bacilli carrier “Typhoid Mary” for more than 26 serious cases of the disease. Investigations led to her forced quarantine by the New York Health Department. After three years in isolation she successfully fought for release, only to be exiled to an island cottage for the rest of her life after authorities discovered she continued to work as a cook. This lecture will examine the role of super spreaders, and Mary's own circumstances as an immigrant.

Mary’s case created a plethora of moral and ethical dilemmas for the medical and law enforcement agencies involved at the time, and which are relevant today. Can we legally — and ethically — imprison and isolate someone solely because they are carriers? Does public health supersede individual rights? When does precautionary action become fear and then the acceptance of tyranny? And who gets to make these calls?

This is the first lecture in a series entitled First Responders: Then and Now, which will investigate the intersection between health crises, immigrants, and personal freedom at various points in US history. This series has been funded in part by Humanities New York, with the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Please call the museum to reserve your seat as we are still adhering to Covid 19 restrictions.