The largest work ever published about the lives of famous Irish men and women, which was recently launched in Belfast, Northern Ireland by poet Seamus Heaney, features ‘Typhoid Mary.’ Mary Mallon is listed in the nine-volume ‘Dictionary of Irish Biography’ which includes almost 10,000 entries, spanning 2,000 years. A joint project between the Royal Irish Academy and Cambridge University Press, the dictionary is the most comprehensive guide available both in print and online for Ireland. From James Joyce, to Patrick Pearse, the resource outlines the careers both at home and overseas of prominent people born in Ireland, north and south.
‘Typhoid Mary’ has become a generic term for a healthy carrier of a disease, but the name originated from Mary Mallon, a woman who was born in Cookstown, County Tyrone, on September 23, 1869. She emigrated to New York at the age of 14, and went on to work as a domestic cook for rich families.
In August 1906, she was employed at the Long Island summer residence of a New York banker when six members of the household fell ill with typhoid fever. The owners of the home feared they would not be able to rent the property again without first discovering the source of the outbreak. The family first employed investigators to find the cause, but without success. They then hired George Soper, a civil engineer with experience in typhoid fever outbreaks. And it was Mr Soper who believed the cook Mary was the cause. He was able to trace Mary’s employment history and discovered that typhoid outbreaks had followed her from job to job.
Sources say that from 1900 to 1907, Mr Soper found Mallon employed in seven jobs, which led to the infection of 22 people, including one young girl who died with typhoid fever shortly after Mary had come to work for them. Mr Soper was satisfied that this was much more than a coincidence. Once identified as the source of these outbreaks Mary eventually became demonised in the eyes of the public. She died of pneumonia at the age of 69 and was buried in the Bronx borough of New York. Her nickname remains a pejorative term for people who wilfully spread disease.
And fifty years after the death of the real Typhoid Mary, a character with the same name ‘who poisoned all she touched’ made an appearance in Marvel’s Daredevil comic-book series.