NOVA featured The most dangerous woman in America, this evening, about Mary Mallon, the Irish immigrant otherwise known as “Typhoid Mary”.
When she was finally quarantined in 1909, germ theory was not widely accepted by the public. Certainly she never accepted, on the basis of scientific evidence about invisible germs, that she was a threat to anyone. She fought a legal battle, and won public support for her plight as an innocent woman imprisoned against her will. Finally, under court order, the New York Public Health department released her. But they kept track of her to make sure she didn’t work again as a cook.
Until they lost track of her, that is. When epidemiologist George Soper caught up with her again (alerted by a new outbreak), he found her working as a cook again, in a maternity hospital. Public sympathy for her evaporated, and this time she was quarantined for good.
The episode, strong on historical fact, left the viewer to weigh the merits of punitive measures against infectious people. But the fact is, a balance does have to be struck. By draconian measures, we could confine one bad example, while ensuring that hundreds of people at risk fake their samples to avoid detection. It’s a balancing act.
But there is another lesson, untouched by the NOVA episode, and it is that science and math education matter. Students need to look through microscopes, through telescopes, use laboratory scales and measures. They need to take measurements in the real world and do statistical analysis on the data they collect. This need not be magnetic resonance chemistry; it can be counting birds in a field or recording how many people pull when the sign says “push”. Because you never know when, or what, the student might need to understand someday.
Today, school children calmly accept revolutionary ideas that once confounded experts and the public. Science education begins this process; for the general public, science journalism picks it up and illuminates the cutting edge of the scientists’ tools. Science is the reach that exceeds the grasp of our senses, past the intuitive limitations of our spectral sensitivity, our temporal, spatial, and quantitative frames. Where religion once flailed at explanation, science digs patiently, methodically.
Was Mary Mallon evil? It isn’t that she wanted to hurt anyone; she really didn’t believe she was hurting anyone. But moral judgments about her intentions aside, even if she wasn’t evil, she was an evil to the people she needlessly infected with a catastrophic disease.