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Today in Food: Mary Mallon, Cook and Disease Spreader, Born Today

September 23rd, 2008 · 1 Comment

You know her as Typhoid Mary, but Mary Mallon, of Ireland, was known as “cook” to several households in New York city around the early 20th Century.

Immune to typhoid fever, she was instead a carrier, and through her cooking and food handling, spread the disease that’s caused by Salmonella bacteria. She was captured, later released, recaptured, and sent into seclusion by authorities.

The disease today is not generally fatal– it can be treated with antibiotics, and a vaccine has reduced its numbers drastically in developed countries.

Preventing it is also simple — washing hands after using the toilet or handling foods — but in non-developed countries, it’s rampant, and the World Health Organization is working to teach proper sanitation, food handling and hygiene.

Moral of story: Teach your kids, grandkids and everyone else to properly wash their hands — especially in the kitchen. It has to be more than a few seconds; you should scrub long enough for the soap to work: Sing a verse of either Happy Birthday or Old MacDonald Had A Farm.

A fascinating book on Typhoid Mary was published in 1997: Typhoid Mary, by Judith Leavitt.

Tags: Today in the World of Food

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Ben // Sep 24, 2008 at 1:13 pm

    Frank Wright always said that bad publicity was still publicity… I am guessing that “Typhoid Mary” was a celebrity in her day! Heck, she is still a celebrity of sorts today.

    Seriously, I find that very few people wash their hands. I watch wait staff touch the food plates when serving, then clear dirty dishes (touching other food plates), then serving again. This repulses me, and sometimes I have to try and block it from my mind when eating at a restaurant.

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