Quarantine

by Barry Drogin

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Increased immigration, infamous factory working conditions, ineffective sanitation and sanitary measures, inadequate housing, and simple ignorance contributed to the proliferation of epidemics of tuberculosis and typhoid fever amongst the poor in turn-of-the- century New York City. As to typhoid, bad water, bad milk, bad oysters and bad people were blamed and feared, and when the disease invaded the comfortable middle-class town houses, hysteria often drove policy and public opinion. It was in this setting that America discovered its first typhoid "carrier," an outwardly healthy cook who nevertheless secreted bacilli and could pass the disease to others through uncooked food she handled. Labeled "Typhoid Mary" (one thinks of "Son of Sam," "Baby M," and so on), Mary Mallon (born 1870) would suffer nearly half her life under the physical and psychological restraints placed on her by a panicked bourgeoisie.

Our dance/drama attempts to trace, to the extent the medium allows, Miss Mallon's mythification. In the first scene, we are in a middle-class home (typically, the servants outnumbered the family members). A meal is prepared and served. The exuberance of the scene is shattered when the cook's assistant is taken ill and dies. Proceeding without pause to the second scene, the epidemic continues to spread, with Mary emerging in her ironic dual role as disease-spreader and care-taker. Does she know? As she leaves the scene of destruction, a sanitation engineer and self-styled "epidemic fighter," George Soper, starts to hypothesize the existence of America's first "Bazillentrager," as the German medical researchers he has read have described.

In the next scene, taking place in a public park, Soper, joined by health inspector Dr. S. J. Baker, authoritatively proclaims his medical discovery and, after a great struggle, subdues and brands Mary. Mary is thrown into quarantine, where she will remain for three years (North Brother Island, 1907-10). Legal attempts to free her only fan the flames of publicity, which Soper encourages. Fortunately, there is also public sympathy for her amongst the immigrant classes, and Mary is freed, but on the condition that she give up the profession of cooking.

Stripped of her means of livelihood, fearful to identify herself, Mary is thrust out into a world obsessed with a by-now infamous character of their own invention: "Typhoid Mary." Where is she now? What is she doing? Is it safe? Whether due to a dangerous sense of denial, or merely due to financial necessity, Mary secretly returns to cooking, and, five years after her release, is recaptured and quarantined. As her myth is played out before her, Mary is forced to face the fact that she will spend the rest of her life, another twenty-three years (1915-1938), confined to hospital grounds, forced to become that which the public sees.

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