Give your overall reaction to the story of Typhoid Mary. Discuss what you think of how she was treated.  Discuss how you think public health and law enforcement should deal with a person who...

  1. Give your overall reaction to the story of Typhoid Mary. Discuss what you think of how she was treated.  Discuss how you think public health and law enforcement should deal with a person who could possible  spread a dangerous disease in today's society.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In 1909, Mary Mallon had firmly understood her condition as the convergent result of terrible chance, public demonization, and bureaucratic incompetence.  In a letter describing her predicament, she concludes with how she is not seen as a patient, a test case, or even someone who is simply different. She realizes that she is seen in an objectified manner of voyeurism:

I have been in fact a peep show for everybody. Even the interns had to come to see me and ask about the facts already known to the whole wide world. The tuberculosis men would say "There she is, the kidnapped woman." Dr. Park has had me illustrated in Chicago. I wonder how the said Dr. William H. Park would like to be insulted and put in the Journal and call him or his wife Typhoid William Park.

"Typhoid Mary's" treatment is a reflection of poor social understanding and a lack of progressive thought from public health officials and law enforcement.

One area  where public health and law enforcement failed in their treatment of Mary Mallon was in the national publicizing of her predicament.  In a sensationalist manner, Mallon became the embodiment of the disease.  The fact that her nickname was given to her by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1908 is significant.  This was the first time that "typhoid Mary" was put into print and thus, the national media machine was able to brand Mallon as the figure. The disease was associated with Mallon. It was reflective of a social stigma in which typhoid was an individual's "fault" and not a condition of biological reality.  Mallon was sick, and the illness was not validated as such. Rather, it was seen as something for which she was to blame.  This resulted in the need for her to change her name.

Social resources to assist someone in Mallon's condition were absent.  The aggressiveness with which she was identified with the disease developed resentment and hesitance in her potential cooperation with authorities.  Consider that less of a "persecuting" stance and more of an understanding one might have helped in stopping the spread of the disease and in assisting the patient.  The public authorities recognized this "targeting" associated with Mallon and the attempts to construct her as "Typhoid Mary.  When public health official Dr. Sara Josephine Baker went to talk with her, it was clear "by that time she [Mallon] was convinced that the law was only persecuting her when she had done nothing wrong."  Such a belief only arises when there is public misunderstanding, and civic failure on the part of both public health and law enforcement officials.

In today's setting, there has to be a sense of balance between both public safety and the civil liberties of those who are ill.  Targeting or demonizing victims of disease, as Mallon experienced, is not effective.  While Mallon's actions spread the disease, the reality was that that she was placed in an impossible position.  New York City law enforcement and public health officials believed her to be the sole agent of the disease.  This is a perceptional mindset that is not as present today. For example, when a recent diagnosis of MERS ( Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) was made, the name of the patient is not divulged.  Public emphasis is not placed on the carrier, but on the disease.  Individuals are no longer blamed in the media for a disease, as seen in the language of press releases:  "The condition of the unidentified 53-year-old man had improved but he was still in intensive care in a Dhaka clinic, Mahmudur Rahman, the director of the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research, told AFP."  At the same time, the conduct of public health officials are more on trial in the public setting than individuals.  For example, when new organizations like Newsweek reported on the MERS virus, the focus went straight at the institutions in charge of public safety and not individual carriers of the disease:  "Saudi health sources and international virologists said poor communication and a lack of accountability in government departments, inadequate state oversight and a failure to learn from past mistakes have all hindered Saudi Arabia's battle against the SARS-like virus."  In the final analysis, the shift of perception to fighting a disease as opposed to targeting a person is critical.  If modern society seeks to stop the spread of dangerous diseases, it must successfully make this paradigm shift, something not seen in the case of "Typhoid Mary."

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