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Saturday, March 07, 2009

ONE: MARY, MARY, QUITE CONTRARY

I doubt that you have ever heard of George Soper, but he is the perfect example of the ways that new technology and new ways of thinking provide an opportunity for an individual to achieve wealth and fame. George was born in 1870 in New York City, just as the population was exploding, and people were noticing that it was not a very healthy place to live. While each year one out of every 36 people in New York City died of disease or accident, in Boston and Philadelphia the rate was one out of every 44. The rate for London and Paris was one out of every 40. The natural question was why the death rate varied at all. No one had ever asked that before.George A. Soper graduated from Columbia University in 1899 with a doctorate in the new field of “civil” engineering. He was described as a man of “average build, high wide forehead and hooded eyes that seem foreboding,” which I suppose came from staring down disaster day after day.
On September 8th, 1900 when a category 4 Hurricane leveled Galveston Island, Texas and killed one third of the island’s population, one of the unsung heroes was 30 year old Dr. George Soper. He saved thousands of lives in Galveston by quickly redesigning the municipal water system and preventing the predicted typhoid epidemic which normally followed natural disasters. In 1903 he helped stop a typhoid epidemic in Ithaca that had killed 82 in just two months, and then stopped another typhoid outbreak in Watertown, New York. In 1904 he turned his attention to New York City.George was hired by the city Department of Health, and tasked with answering a basic question; what happens to all that human waste dumped into the Hudson and East Rivers? Conventional wisdom was that it all floated out the bay. But by releasing floats into the rivers and tracking their journeys over three years, George came to the stunning realization that because of the tides, neither river actually flows very much. The floats meandered back and forth for weeks before eventually escaping into the bay. Since the river did not flush itself, it was not a very good toilet. As George explained to the New York Times, “…immense quantities of poisonous sewage floats for days in the river and bays close to public baths, bathing beaches and the oyster beds of Jamaica Bay, from which 1 million bushels are brought to New York markets every year.” (p. 20, NYT March 14, 1911 Sports) George was obviously preparing the public for the expense of building a new sewage system.George knew there would be resistance to the idea - “No new taxes!” is not a new battle cry – and he knew opponents to the expense would be nit-picking every word he said. And if you listened carefully you could hear Dr. Soper soften his absolutes, even in that same interview with the Times. He continued, “Only recently there was an outbreak of typhoid at the Rockaway Peninsula…In one case we traced the oysters to a dealer who was to have put them into fresh water before selling them. We could not assertion whether or not he kept his promise…” In other words, George knew the sewage was killing people but he did not yet have the individual case histories or the laboratory work that would establish it to a scientific certainty. And that was why, when landlord George Thompson asked Dr. Soper to investigate a house he was renting in Oyster Bay, Long Island, Dr. Soper jumped at the chance.Banker Charles Warren and his family had rented the Thompson guest house for the summer. On August 27 one of the Warren daughters had suddenly developed a fever of 105 degrees F, a headache, diarrhea, nausea and a heavy cough. When she also developed a skin rash the doctor diagnosed her with typhoid fever. Quickly Mrs. Warren, a second daughter, two maids and the gardener also came down with the fever. A Board of Health investigator quickly ascribed the source to a contaminated water supply, but the Thompson family drank from the same supply and they were all fine. Mr. Thompson was convinced the cause could not be the water, in part because, if it was, he would have a very hard time renting that house again.Dr. Soper agreed with Mr. Thompson, and began his own investigation, but this time in New York City where he interviewed the Warren family intensively. George had noted that there were eleven people in the Warren household that summer, but only six had developed typhoid. What was different about those six people? What had they done that the five other occupants had not done? Eventually, after hours of interviews, the family remembered a special treat they had eaten for desert one night; peaches. George realized now he had to locate the cook, who everyone was certain, had not developed typhoid.All the family knew about her was that she was middle aged, had dark hair, and was named Mary. She had been provided by an employment agency, which had checked her letters of reference but had not kept them. So George found himself tracking “Mary” the cook through other servants used by the same agency. He ran into suspicion and secrecy, and had to travel to Boston, but eventually he discovered that her name was Mary Mallon, and she had cooked for seven families over the last seven years. In those families 22 people had developed typhoid fever, and one young girl had died. Soper was now certain he had found a carrier for typhoid, something that been only a theory up to now; Which explains why Dr. Soper was so excited when he found Mary, working as a cook for Walter Bowen and his family, on Park Avenue.Soper appeared before Mary in the Bowen kitchen and, “I was as diplomatic as possible, but I had to say I suspected her of making people sick and I wanted specimens of her urine, feces and blood.” Mary would later claim that Soper also told her he was going to write a book about her and offered to split the royalties with her. But whether such a deal was offered or not, Mary’s reaction was swift and definitive. According to Soper, “She seized a carving fork and advanced in my direction.” Soper says he ran from the house, feeling lucky to have escaped.And to be honest, I do not blame Ms. Malone. A strange man has approached her and asked for a sample of her bodily fluids. And worse, she was accused of being a typhoid Mary; in fact, the original Typhoid Mary.

- 30 –

PART TWO: THE LAW OF SCIENCE

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