Mary Mallon was born in Northern Ireland in 1869, to a mother who had typhoid fever during her pregnancy. Mary emigrated to the United States when she was 15 years old, and made a good living as a cook to families in New York City. It was only when a number of the people in those families fell ill with typhoid fever that she was suspected of spreading the contagion.
Back in 1906, the idea of germs was quite new, and the idea that a perfectly-healthy appearing person might still be sick was a novel thought. One of the families who contracted typhoid fever hired an investigator named George Soper to find the source of the illness. After ruling out all other possibilities, Mr. Soper concluded that the family’s cook, Mary Mallon, had infected them.
But when Mary was approached by the Health Department and asked to give blood, urine, and stool samples, she became furious. She was not sick, she insisted, and would not cooperate. Eventually she was forcibly taken to a hospital, isolated, and forced to give samples. The samples indicated that her body was full of typhoid germs, even though she appeared extremely healthy. Mary was the first known asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever in New York City. Now that the authorities knew she was a carrier who infected others, the question became: what do we do with her?
Mary was first locked in a hospital room, then moved to an island for people with contagious diseases. She protested mightily that her rights were being violated, that she should not be lock up and deprived of a normal life. For the rest of her life, she would battle the authorities over whether she should be quarantined or not.
As I read this story, I was amazed at how similar some things were to our current situation with the coronavirus. Mary was without symptoms; many asymptomatic people are now among us. Some of Mary’s test results showed no contagion while others confirmed typhoid; today’s coronavirus tests are sometimes incorrect as well. Mary appealed to the court systems to uphold her constitutional rights; citizens are now appealing to the court systems regarding business closures and stay-at-home orders. And lastly, Mary’s situation caused polar reactions from the public. Some felt outraged that an innocent woman was being held in quarantine against her wishes. Others felt that she should be locked up for the rest of her life.
History certainly has a way of repeating itself, whether it’s 1906 or 2020. There is no perfect answer to the question of how to balance the rights of the individual to do as he/she wants, and the rights of the public to be as safe as possible.