Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions

TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: October 12, 2004


Most Dangerous Woman homepage

"Woman Cook a Walking Typhoid Fever Factory," said the headline in a New York City newspaper in 1907. The woman was Mary Mallon, an Irish immigrant who as "Typhoid Mary" would become a notorious symbol of a public health menace. In "The Most Dangerous Woman in America," NOVA explores the legacy of one of history's most infamous disease carriers.

Mary Mallon's ordeal took place at a time when the new science of bacteriology was shaping public health policies in America for the first time, and her case continues to hold lessons amid today's heightened concerns about communicable diseases. The program is based on Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public's Health, by Judith Walzer Leavitt, which the Boston Book Review praised as "an indelible picture of early 20th-century New York, when modern knowledge and sensibilities collided with ancient terrors." (Read an adaptation.)

Leavitt, who is professor of medical history and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin Medical School, is one of several noted experts interviewed by NOVA. Also featured is Anthony Bourdain, the celebrated chef at New York's Les Halles restaurant and author of Kitchen Confidential and Typhoid Mary. NOVA's dramatization stars Marian Tomas Griffin (As the World Turns) as Mallon, Jere Shea (Tony nomination for Guys and Dolls) as George Soper, and Natalie Rose as Dr. Josephine Baker.

The story, which unfolds like a detective novel, opens with a mysterious cluster of typhoid fever cases in August 1906 in a very unlikely setting: a summer house in wealthy Oyster Bay, Long Island. Typhoid fever is a bacterial disease spread by poor sanitation. At the turn of the 20th century, it was associated with slums and poverty. About 10 percent of those infected died.

Alarmed, the owner of the house hired civil engineer George Soper to track down the source of the infection. Soper ruled out the water supply and local shellfish, and began to focus on the household's former cook, Mary Mallon, who had arrived in the house shortly before the epidemic broke out. She had since left, but Soper traced her employment history and learned that typhoid outbreaks followed her wherever she went.

After Soper located Mallon, his repeated attempts to get her to submit to testing were met with the same response: a brandished meat fork and threats. It took health department worker Dr. Josephine Baker and five police officers to apprehend Mallon. After typhoid bacilli were found in her feces, she was sent to a quarantine island in New York's East River. (For Mallon's view on her quarantine, see In Her Own Words.)

But the case was far from open and shut, says Leavitt. "We see it today, certainly with multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, with HIV-AIDS, now with SARS; you see where individuals are quarantined, isolated, whose liberty is taken away in the name of protecting the public health. Mary Mallon gives us an example of that at an extreme level, because she was healthy. She wasn't even sick."

Mallon was what's known as a healthy carrier—a person who is contagious but has no symptoms. She had probably come down with a mild, undetected case of typhoid fever at some point in her past and had retained active germs ever since. While preparing food, she shed bacteria from her hands, and it never occurred to her that she was spreading disease. When her condition was explained to her, she refused to believe it and fought back by secretly hiring a private laboratory, whose results reportedly showed that she was free from infection.

Nonetheless, her tests in quarantine continued to show typhoid bacteria, and she was detained until 1910, when authorities released her on condition that she not work in food handling and that she check in regularly with health officials. Mallon returned to freedom. But that was not the last the public would hear of "Typhoid Mary," who would turn up again in circumstances that shocked even those who sympathized with her plight.

Back to top

Portrait of Mary

This portrait of the 39-year-old Mary Mallon appeared in a 1909 newspaper story about her.




The Most Dangerous Woman in America
In Her Own Words

In Her Own Words
Read an impassioned letter Mary Mallon wrote in 1909.

Typhoid Mary: Villain or Victim?

Typhoid Mary:
Villain or Victim?

An historian says health officials should share blame for Mallon's behavior.

History of Quarantine

History of Quarantine
Follow an illustrated chronology, from Roman times to the present.

Disease Detective

Disease Detective
Trace the outbreak of a mysterious illness, "dizzy fever," to its source.



Program Transcript

Program Credits



Send Feedback Image Credits
   
NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions

Support provided by

For new content
visit the redesigned
NOVA site