Typhoid in Oyster Bay
The first sign of trouble began in the late summer of 1906, when a small epidemic broke out in a home in the town of Oyster Bay, New York. Six occupants in a house of eleven were taken ill with typhoid fever for no apparent reason. The location was in an upscale, wealthy section of Long Island where properties were typically sanitary and well-kept. Anthony Bourdain, in his book, Typhoid Mary, describes it as "a popular vacation spot for wealthy urban New Yorkers, it was best known for hosting President Theodore Roosevelt during the summer" (13). A New York City businessman named Charles Henry Warren had rented the residence for the season, and in August that same year; six family members became gravely ill.
Two of those afflicted were diagnosed with typhoid at Nassau County Hospital. A medical investigation was begun, which included a study of the food supply that came into the home during the previous month. Special attention was paid to milk and other dairy products, which were primary suspects in the spread of diseases. The drainage and water supply were also tested and found to be in fine working order. Water sources were thought to be especially vulnerable to typhoid due to leakage from cesspools and septic systems that were a common sight on most rural properties at that time. However, none of these proved to be the source of the infection.
In the winter of 1906, the family called in the same Dr. Soper, who had investigated the notorious Ithaca epidemic in 1903. He soon focused on the family's food consumption, which included a fondness for clams. Local natives, who gathered them from waters that were considered unsafe, brought the mollusks to the Warren household. Soper discovered that a local sewage pipe drained into the bay from which the clams were harvested. For a moment, he thought he had found the source of the mysterious illness. "But if clams had been responsible for the outbreak," Soper later wrote, "it did not seem clear why the fever should have been confined to the house, because clams formed a common article of diet among the native inhabitants of Oyster Bay" (Soper 3). Further investigation convinced Soper that the infection had to be introduced into the Warren household on or before August 20.
Because there were no other cases of typhoid in or near Oyster Bay, it soon became obvious that the disease was introduced into the home by an outside carrier. When Soper questioned the family, he discovered an interesting fact. "It was found that the family had changed cooks on August 4 about three weeks before the epidemic broke out." he noted, "and little was known about the new cook's history ... she remained in the family only a short time, leaving about three weeks after the outbreak of typhoid occurred" (Soper 3). The cook was an Irish woman, about forty years old, tall, and seemed to perform her duties in a conscientious manner. Everyone in the Warren family agreed on one point, however: The woman was in perfect health and was never sick while she was living in the house.
According to the Warrens, her name was Mary Mallon.