Germs (HLD 347)

5 March 2020

As I watched my beloved oldest grandson help his mother cook a batch of banana bread this morning, Typhoid Mary came to my mind.

Typhoid Mary was the unfortunate name applied to an Irish-born cook, who is believed to have infected over 50 people with typhoid fever. She didn’t show any symptoms of the disease herself, but everywhere she went, people had this unfortunate tendency to catch typhoid, and in some cases, die from it.

Authorities eventually made the connection, arresting her as a public health threat, and quarantined her on an island. She did not believe she was a carrier, and when she was eventually released, it was under the proviso that she never work as a cook again. She tried, she really did. She went to work as a laundress for a while, but that didn’t pay the same sort of money she could make as a cook, so she simply changed her name and went back to work.

Mary was probably a good cook, but unfortunately what she wasn’t good at was washing her hands. Pretty much everywhere she worked, there were typhoid outbreaks. But with the changing of her name, and frequent changes of jobs, it took the authorities a while to locate her again. They followed the typhoid trail until eventually finding her.

And she was quickly put back in quarantine on the island – but this time for more than 23 years.

In parts of the world where we have only minor problems with the virus, our main concern is contact tracing when an outbreak occurs. We want to find the origin of the outbreak, and then make sure we get everyone who may have been in contact with that person, tested and isolated. But anyone who suggests they are being treated like Typhoid Mary should really think about being quarantined on an island for 23 years. And I’m fairly sure it wasn’t a lovely tropical island with sun lounges and cocktail hour.

Mary was an asymptotic carrier of the disease, something unfamiliar at the time. The theory goes that she was born with typhoid because her mother was infected during pregnancy. She went from the poor areas of Ireland to the United States, working as a maid, eventually becoming a cook. The troubles began when she became a cook for affluent people, at the age of 31. I’m not going to presume that prior to this she managed to infect a good number of poor people, and that this wasn’t seen as an issue. I’ll leave it up to you to work out.

I dare say Typhoid Mary wasn’t the only carrier of disease in the world, let along the only typhoid carrier. But she is definitely the most well known.

Everything I’ve read on Typhoid Mary, has reiterated “she didn’t wash her hands”. This has been one of the main bits of health advice constantly advertised since this epidemic began. It has been quite amazing how different our lives are when we wash our hands regularly, not touch stuff so much out in public, wear a mask, and stay at home if you’re sick.

I know it’s hard to compare our lives nowadays with the time of Typhoid Mary at the beginning of last century, where hygiene was unheard of. Is it not even more reason then, that being in a time and place where we are fully aware of how germs are spread, to practise sensible hygiene methods?

By the way – the reason I thought of this today was the 2yo grandson with a lovely big sneeze, straight into the bowl of banana bread mix.

Germs are killed by cooking, right? Anyone want some banana bread?

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