Friday, March 9, 2012

Just call me Mary

I am the human petri dish.

Koo koo ka choo.

I've been stuck in bed for over a day now with some kind of flu and I am totally useless.  I crawled across the room, making pathetic moans and wimpers, grabbed my laptop, then just laid there, drooling into the carpet until TMS came upstairs and put me back in bed. (Then quickly disinfects his entire body, a la The Crying Game except without the shame. Ok, probably a little bit of shame.)

And since I find myself a hot bed of germs and cold medicine, I thought it would be apt to talk a bit about Typhoid Mary, since I am, minus the typhoid. And my name isn't Mary. Just shut up and read! I'm sorry, it's the phlegm monster talking.

Most people have heard the phrase "Typhoid Mary" and many more know that she was a real person. So let me expand, since she was a stubborn and tragic lady and deserves a few lines.

Mary Mallon was an Irish immigrant who came to America in 1884 at age 15 and grew up to work as a cook. Keep in mind that this was a time when no one knew that after handling raw meat, going to the bathroom or any other icky things that you were supposed to wash your hands. This is especially true if you happened to be a healthy carrier of Typhoid. (meaning, you look/feel totally normal, not sick at all, but carry the disease.) Also, if said carrier is preparing food that isn't cooked to a high enough temperature to kill the disease, it's easily transferred to the food and to those eating the food. With all that said, I'll tell you that Mary's specialty dessert for her families was cold peaches and ice cream.

Hi! I'm cuddly Typhoid!
An epidemiologist named George Soper found the trail and it lead straight to Mary.  He came to her and asked for her urine/feces to test for the microbes. She politely declined with a carving fork. Soper later returned with reinforcements, a chase ensued, and finally she was exiled against her will to North Brother Island with other quarantined people. She was later released, only if she pinky swore that she wouldn't work as a cook. Of course she agreed. She then went out and got another cooking job because opportunities are slim for Irish women and that was her skill. She was found again and sent back to the island.

I can see it both ways, can't you? I don't want this woman to infect me or my family. I also understand that she has to make a living. She wasn't treated well, made to understand and made a scapegoat for an entire epidemic. She was not happy on the island, the way most of us probably would have been.

She wrote in a letter, 

"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."

I feel bad for her. She was truly a lady stuck between a rock and a hard place and there was just no winning. She had a stroke, then in 1938 died of pneumonia on the same island.

Well I don't know about you folks but I'm taking a page from 'Lessons that should have been learned by Mary' and keeping my germs to myself. I'm in bed until all this goes away. Or I go stir crazy and lose my marbles; then you will see me on the 9 o'clock news.

Either way, I promise not to make you peaches.

Check out the Nova special "The Most Dangerous Woman in America" and "Stuff You Missed in History Class" podcast for more info on Mary and other cool history subjects.