The Justice of Enforced Quarantine

Mary Mallon was born in 1869 in Ireland. She came to America at age 15. After a short time working as a maid, she became a cook for wealthy families.

From 1900-1907, she worked for a number of families. In each case, members of the family or their staff became ill with typhoid fever. Some died. The outbreaks on Long Island were a sign that something was wrong, since typhoid fever had never been in the area.

A property owner on Long Island hired George Soper, a civil engineer, to investigate the cause of the typhoid outbreaks. Soper was known to be an epidemic fighter and believed that typhoid could be spread by just one person. Germ theory was not accepted at the time so Soper’s beliefs were not thought to be valid.

Soper found a connection between the various cases of typhoid, and that connection was Mary. At first, it seemed unlikely that Mary was the cause of the typhoid since she had no symptoms. Later they discovered that Mary was born with typhoid. Mary was asked to provide fluid samples, but she refused. Five policemen were needed to escort her to a hospital. She tried to escape, but was unsuccessful. She tested positive and was quarantined. Throughout her life, Mary couldn’t be convinced she had typhoid. Her gallbladder was thought to be the source of the typhoid, but she refused to have it removed.

When the press found out about Mary, she became known as Typhoid Mary. She sued the state to be released from quarantine. Her attorney argued that she had been placed in prison without due process. The court refused to release her. A year later she was released, if she quick cooking.

Mary went back to cooking since she had no other skills. Again, she caused typhoid breakout. She was again forcibly quarantined without due process. This time she was never allowed to leave the quarantine. She spent 30 years in quarantine.

Was justice done? Mary never committed a crime under any existing statute. She was never given due process, but she did cause the death of at least 50 people. When does personal freedom outweigh societal well-being in a case like this? What are the roles of the various actors in a case such as this? How can we decide what is just?

* * *

“Justice cannot be for one side alone, but must be for both.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.