Typhoid Mary and the Broad Street Pump

On proceeding to the spot, I found that nearly all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the [Broad Street] pump. There were only ten deaths in houses situated decidedly nearer to another street-pump. In five of these cases the families of the deceased persons informed me that they always sent to the pump in Broad Street, as they preferred the water to that of the pumps which were nearer. In three other cases, the deceased were children who went to school near the pump in Broad Street…

John Snow, letter to the editor of the Medical Times and Gazette, 1854

Sickness is on my mind.

Cambridge has been weathering an epidemic of gastric flu, at the centre of which I have been languishing. My family have all had it, half of the teachers have had it, half of the Mallon-Mary_01university has had it, and I suppose half of everybody else has had it. And somewhere or other, you start to suspect, there lurks a Typhoid Mary.

The original Typhoid Mary was an Irish woman, Mary Mallon, who emigrated to the USA at the end of the nineteenth century, and who was afflicted with asymtomatic typhoid fever, hence was a carrier of the disease. Unfortunately for the USA, her chosen profession was cook. She worked in a number of families in the first years of the twentieth century, nearly all of whom contracted the disease, with a number of fatalities. Mary moved on whenever there was an outbreak, and when she was finally confronted (by a sanitation engineer and typhoid researcher called George Soper, employed by one of the families) refused to co-operate, going so far as to deny the basic tenets of hygiene, and so was quarantined against her will, twice: on the first occasion for three years, and then, having been released on an undertaking not to take a position as cook, only to take up several positions as cook, again for 23 years, until her death in 1938, not of typhoid.

A Typhoid Mary need not be a person, of course. In 1854 the English physician John Snow made a breakthrough in the understanding of the transmission of cholera when he traced an outbreak in Soho, central London, to a single contaminated water pump on Broad Street (as part of his evidence, no monks in an adjoining monastery were infected, since they only drank their home-brew beer).

I could go on to notice the prevalence of campylobacter in supermarket chickens as noted in the newspapers today, but I am starting to make the school appear a pestilential charnel house, and it is nothing of the sort. It is an open sunlit precinct of healthy learning. One of two of us happen to have been poorly, that’s all.

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