“Typhoid Mary” is the story of Irish immigrant Mary Mallon, who was the first to be identified as a healthy carrier of typhoid. Her intriguing story was a breakthrough in bacteriology: she was the first person in the United States to be identified as a healthy carrier. This fact would have gone undetected if it were not for Mallon’s profession as a cook, in which she unknowingly infected others. Another fascinating aspect was that she was then quarantined on an island for the remainder of her life without due process.
What I found most fascinating about this film was the emphasis it placed on ethics and rights. After all public health is the science and art of preventing disease and promoting health through the organized and informed choices of organizations, communities and individuals. Another interesting aspect of this film is how it addresses a community’s safety at the cost of individual rights. When is it appropriate for public health officials to act without the consent of their patient? There is still quite a bit of uncertainty surrounding individual rights versus what government officials perceive as best.
Public officials mostly agreed that one person’s civil liberties could be infringed upon for the benefit of the whole. But this sort of logic brings about an opening into ethically ambiguous work. When is it right to draw the line of the individual and the whole? Such questions must have definitely been asked in the Guatemala experiments conducted from 1946 to 1948, in which doctors, with the approval of the US Department of Health, infected natives of Guatemala with Syphilis and Gonorrhea to test the effectiveness of penicillin. The same events occurred in 1907 with Mary Mallon, as she was forced to take experimental drugs doctors believed would cure her.
As much as I would love to claim that this was a thing of the early 1900s, and we have learned better, sadly I cannot. The Tuskegee Experiments was a clinical study conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service. They recruited 399 impoverished African-American sharecroppers who had syphilis and did not offer any medicine in order to see the natural progression of the disease. What’s more showing and disturbing is that this experiment lasted until 1972.
Typhoid Mary – The Most Dangerous Woman in America raises more questions than it provides answers. Is it ever right to pursue scientific inquiry at the expense of an individual’s health? Would it be ethical to inform a patient’s lover of their partner’s infectious disease, or should we maintain patient confidentiality? The tragic story of Mary Mallon, who died on a small quarantined island, emphasizes the social, ethical and legal dilemmas faced by public health workers.
Jennifer De Jesus is a student in the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College and an avid movie watcher. She is also an employee of the Health Professions Education Center, which has one of the largest collections of health films in New York City.
This is the first entry in a new blog post series, “Must See!” Films Public Policy Films from a Student’s Perspective.