Who’s to blame?

While reading The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson, I was reminded by a piece of literature that addresses a very similar issue, Typhoid Mary. This book written by Susan Bartoletti shines a light on an Irish immigrant named Mary Mallon. Mary became a reliable cook as she made her way through several establishments upon her arrival in New York city in the 1880’s. But there was something that quickly destroyed her career and reputation as one of the greatest cooks, she carried a pathogen associated with typhoid fever. Mary was the first person in the United States to be an asymptotic carrier of this pathogen. This made her infect everybody that came in contact with her, but did absolutely no harm to Mary herself.

Mary Mallon has been presumed to have infected over 50 people, three of which suffered the unfortunate result of death. Sadly, Mary suffered the same fate. Nobody could comprehend that she was merely a carrier of the disease that was not infected, but could infect others through contaminated food or drinks. Mary was sent to prison for her determination to keep working as a cook for families. She died of pneumonia on the floor of her room, alone.

In Typhoid Mary, Mary Mallon was blamed heavily for infecting the people around her. She suffered many harsh consequences such as being sent to prison several times. The public hated her and saw her as a danger to society, and therefore treated her terribly. This is contrasted by the events that happen in The Ghost Map where the idea of blaming somebody for the spread of cholera is barley discussed. The difference between these two events are very drastic. One is centered around blame and getting rid of the human that is causing the disease without trying to understand the situation, while the other builds the investigation of the epidemic slowly and collects facts and evidence for proof.

The difference between these two strategies is very interesting, it brings up the question of who is to blame for the spread of an epidemic. Is it a metal pump that distributes the contaminated water? The government officials who let the public throw their waste in the water? The baby whose diaper was thrown in Broad Street? Or the oblivious cook who ignorantly infected her employers? Another reason why Mary was potentially blamed for unknowingly infecting others was because she was an immigrant. This is what she believed, which is not out of reach as similar occurrences have happened today. Ignorant people generalize and blame entire groups for something that is out of their control. These questions force us to place the responsibility of the death of many on one reason. Should this be the case? Or should we all collectively assume the authority of the situation?

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