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Typhoid Mary, the original super spreader

Mary Mallon, better known as Typhoid Mary, is

Mary Mallon, better known as Typhoid Mary, is fourth from the right among a group quarantined on North Brother Island. Credit: Alamy Stock Photo/Science History Images

Whether society should be allowed to detain infectious disease carriers who won’t do what’s necessary to ensure they don’t spread the disease is a hot topic in New York, but it’s not a new topic.

This week the spur for the controversy is a bill in the Assembly that would allow the state to detain carriers of infectious diseases who refuse vaccinations and quarantine, for up to three days without a court order. The bill has state Republican leaders and anti-vaxx and "patriot" groups demanding that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other Democrats denounce the "detention camps."

But since the bill was introduced in the Assembly in 2015 for Ebola, never got a Senate sponsor, and has no chance of advancing, Democrats aren’t taking the bait. Unless you consider Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi’s frustrated response taking the bait:

"We have real problems to focus on and I urge the crazy uncles who are fueling this cut-rate QAnon to knock it off and take a walk or something," Azzopardi told reporters.

The bill won’t pass, but the issue won’t fade, either. We have dealt with it, on Long Island in particular, since at least 1906.

That’s when they found "Typhoid Mary" infecting folks in Oyster Bay.

The moniker is a cliché, but the story of Mary Mallon, a professional cook and serial infector, is somewhat obscure.

In 1907, a civil engineer named George Soper was hired by a Long Island landlord to find out why the wealthy household renting his Oyster Bay home the previous summer suffered so badly from typhoid fever: six of the 11 family members and staff contracted it. Mallon arrived at the house to cook three weeks before the first case was discovered.

Soper investigated and found that the posh households hiring Mallon between 1900 and 1907 had endured 22 cases of typhoid fever, a disease that killed 639 people in New York in 1906. Typhoid fever is caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi, easily passed via food that is not cooked after being touched.

Mallon loved to make peach ice cream for her families in the summer.

But Mallon, born in 1869, swore she was not sick and could not be the cause, and repeatedly tried to escape the police taking her to the hospital.

In fact, she was an asymptomatic carrier, though no one ever convinced her of that.

And because she did not believe she was ill, or sickening others, she would not stop cooking for a living, and spreading disease.

Once diagnosed with Typhoid fever, Mallon was quarantined at a hospital on North Brother Island, just off the coast of the Bronx. She sued in 1909, taking her case up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and losing when the court declined the case, writing that society had to protect the community against a recurrence of the disease.

But the next year Mallon was freed by the New York City Department of Public Health.

She soon returned to professional cooking, she said, because other work paid too little, and returned to sickening others, causing a 25-person outbreak while employed at Sloane Maternity Hospital in 1915.

She was again sent to North Brother Island and this time, stayed, working in the hospital lab, reading in her idle hours, and telling anyone who’d listen that she’d never sickened a soul.

And the question her case raised has never really been answered.

What should a fair society do with an ill citizen who won’t do what’s necessary to stop sickening others?

Clearly, we shouldn’t detain them without due process, but I’m damned if I can see how we’d let them run free.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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