Stand Firm with Public Health Protectors

It is 30 years now since Charles Panati’s Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody found its way to bookstores and libraries. It should be mandatory reading in Grades 11 and 12 and a passing grade requirement in first-year university exams.

There is an urgency to my recommendation. It springs from the open rejection and defiance by so many young people to public health authorities attempting to curb the spread of COVID-19 with its ever-challenging virus variations.

So far, there is no magic bullet to eliminate the new intruder threatening our health and happiness, but we do have vaccines that challenge the invader and slow or halt its progress. However, we also have a vociferous and militant anti-vax movement shouting, protesting and, in some cases, threatening frontline workers who are putting their health and their lives at risk every day and through the long hours of each night.

Two hundred years ago, people had cause to question experimenting doctors who probably killed as many as they cured. One hundred years ago, even in so-called advanced nations, our overall record wasn’t all that great. I was born into a five-children family, but only two of us made it beyond our teens. A 10-month-old sister and five-year-old brother were lost to meningitis, and an 18-year-old brother was lost to peritonitis because there was no cure to offer.

When I was born in 1923, smallpox was still a feared disease, although English country Dr. Edward Jenner had found a vaccine in 1796 to stop it in its track. For years, the people of England feared the needle more than they feared smallpox. Vaccination didn’t become globally accepted until George Washington was informed that half the men in his 10,000-strong Continental Army were infected. He asked Congress for funds to inoculate the still-healthy soldiers. It took a few more decades to placate the fearful, but, in 1977, what was billed as the last case of smallpox on earth was declared found and cured.

Of more recent memory is the once-frightening battle with poliomyelitis which had been around since ancient Egyptian times with outbreaks of a relatively minor nature until 1916. In his book, Panati writes: “That summer, polio killed six thousand American young children and paralyzed 27,000 others.” The dreaded disease spread worldwide, and you don’t have to be really old to remember front-page pictures in local newspapers of banks of “artificial lungs” keeping people alive by breathing for them. If you were a young parent, you lived in fear for your children and yourself until Dr. Jonas Salk (1955) and Dr. Albert Bruce Sabin (1961) brought the world the cure.

Health workers had other successes – some two steps forward, one step back – like the battle to conquer tuberculosis. They called it “the White Death,” and it was so contagious and invariably fatal that Panati quotes Quaker physician Thomas Young, labelling it as the first disease “to deter practitioners from attempting a cure.”

In the 1950s, there was hope that as the antibiotic streptomycin had sharply reduced the death rate, eradication now seemed possible. But, Panati writes sadly: “Once nearly eradicated in the Western world, TB is tragically on the rise again.”

Never one to mince words, he warns that the primary causes of TB are crowded living spaces created by homelessness, poor diet and drug addiction. He suggests that if those problems are not solved, “the world might be re-visited in pandemic proportions by the White Death, a plague that in the area of modern medicine should never happen.”

One final thought on pandemics and why those opposing protective vaccination need to be completely honest in their self-analysis.

Mary Mallon – an American citizen who died in 1938 at age 69 – was a cook, and Panati tells us, unknown to herself, she was a “medically immunological marvel; a person who carries a deadly agent without ever becoming sick, but who can kill others with a kiss or a meringue pie.”

In 1900, Mary was a cook for a New York residence. Ten days after starting her job, several consumers of her cooking came down with typhoid. Mary quickly found a new position. Members of the new employer’s family developed fevers and diarrhea, and the family laundress died from typhoid. Mary moved again, this time to cook for a lawyer and his household. Seven of his eight family members came down with typhoid, and no one suspected the cook who willingly provided care for those she had made sick.

Panati reports that in 1906, Dr. George Soper was investigating a “cluster” of typhoid cases in New York. He noted one person appeared to show up at all outbreaks. No name was mentioned, but the person was described as an “unmarried, heavyset Irish cook, about 40 years old with thick graying hair, round steel-rimmed glasses and a sombre, sullen countenance.”

But nobody knew her whereabouts.

Undeterred, Soper traced Mary from a fading old case to a new active case at a Park Avenue penthouse where two servants had been hospitalized, and the family daughter had died. When he attempted to interview her, she cursed him. When he asked her to provide stool and urine samples, she threatened him with a meat cleaver. With unspecified assistance from the New York Health Commissioner “and the police,” she was arrested “though not without a fierce battle” and taken away kicking and screaming that she “never washed her hands when she cooked” and never had a need to.

Panati leaves his readers to fill in some descriptive blanks on hospital procedures for Mary. “Daily cultures made of her urine and stools – each forcibly taken with the help of several hospital matrons – revealed that her gall bladder was teeming with typhoid salmonella. She refused to give permission to have her gall bladder removed and also refused to give up cooking as a career.

And – shades of today’s health care protesters – she insisted she was a victim of a medical conspiracy and carried no disease. Dr. Soper’s report identified her as the most likely cause of a major typhoid outbreak, with 1,400 cases in 1903. Seven years later, on the promise that she would never again work as a cook, she was released from commitments made when first arrested and immediately changed her name to Mary Brown.

For the next five years, she managed to stay one jump ahead of Dr. Soper until 1915, when typhoid hit the staff at New York’s Sloan Hospital for Women. There were 25 cases and two deaths, and one of the cooks, “a portly Irish-American woman,” was missing.

This time when they tracked Mary down, she was quarantined for life on North Brother Island, where she often entertained visiting journalists in the furnished cottage provided by the State but was strictly forbidden to provide them with even a drink of water.

She died of pneumonia on November 11, 1938. At autopsy, Panati tells us: “Her gallbladder was found to be as actively shedding typhoid bacilli as ever.”

It leaves me wondering just whom she thought was conspiring against her and why? But find no answer from Mary or today’s conspiracy believers.   

3 comments

  1. A frightening tale of ridiculous medical resistence. But Mary was likely a simple woman. I have anti-vaxers in my family who don’t fit her profile. They are educated and otherwise informed, but have somehow succumbed to vaccine conspiracy theories.

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