How do stories in history create stories about the future?

When I was dropping down various history rabbit-holes I came across the story of Mary Mallon, popularly known as Typhoid Mary. With research on the plague of 1665 and memories of working in a development charity when SARs rose as a threat in the early 2000s, I wondered what would happen if Mary was alive now, and a new threat existed. Little did I know how the world would change between the spark of an idea and the finished book.

Who was Mary Mallon?

In 1906 sanitary engineer George Soper was struggling to discover the cause of an outbreak of typhoid that had made a family and their guests sick. He initially thought it was the freshwater clams, but not all the victims had eaten them. However, there was one common factor – the cook Mary Mallon.

He was so sure that she was the cause, that he started digging a little deeper and found that she had also been the cook for seven more families that had been infected. Mary fled and took other jobs in New York and George Soper followed her progress and the wave of infection that swept along in her wake.

Finally, after 3,000 infections in 1907 he persuaded the health authorities to act and they forcibly confined and tested Mary and samples proved that she was infected. She was taken and held in isolation on North Brother Island which was used to hold people with infectious diseases. After two years and a failed attempt to sue for false imprisonment, Mary was released under condition she did not work preparing food.

After she gained her freedom Mary changed her name, disappeared from sight and got a job in Sloane Maternity Hospital as a cook. In the next three months she infected twenty-five doctors, nurses and staff, of which two died.

She was detained again and once more sent into isolation on North Brother Island. She would never be free again and remained there until her death in 1934.

Mary was a poor immigrant from Ireland. Would she have been held in isolation if she had been wealthy or had powerful advocates? Was it right to hold her against her will? Could anything have been done to persuade her to act responsibly or consider the wider implications of her behaviour? We will never know because she didn’t record her thoughts, and no one recorded them for her.