Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Britain's Typhoid Marys locked up for life in an Epsom asylum

At least 43 female typhoid carriers were locked up for life in a mental hospital after being deemed a public health risk, it was revealed today.

The women were held at Long Grove asylum in Epsom, Surrey, in the years between 1907 and its closure in 1992, a BBC investigation found.

The female patients, who had recovered from typhoid fever but still excreted the bacterium, may have been sane when they went into the hospital but became mad after being locked up, according to nursing staff.

Despite the production of antibiotic treatments in the 1950s, the women were kept locked up because of the state of their mental health.

Most of the hospital’s records were destroyed after it shut down, but historians working at the Surrey History Centre in Woking discovered two volumes of records in the asylum’s ruins.

They found that between 1944 and 1957, three new typhoid carriers entered the unit each year. All of the women came from the London area.

Jeanie Kennett, a ward manager who worked at Long Grove for 40 years, said that life was “pretty tough” for the patients.

“They’re somebody’s loved ones, they’re somebody’s mother, or sister. Everybody had forgotten about them - they were just locked away,” she said.

“Life was pretty tough. They were seen as objects, it was prison-like - everything was lock and key.”

Fear of apparently healthy people who could infect and kill others first emerged in the early years of the 20th Century, prompted by the story of Mary Mallon, known as Typhoid Mary, a poor Irish immigrant who infected 47 people during her career as a cook in New York, three of whom died.

Mallon's case became notorious because she refused to accept that she was a typhoid carrier, and when released from quarantine on condition that she did not work with food again, she illicitly worked under an assumed name as a cook in a hospital, infecting a further 25 people, one of whom died. She was quarantined again, this time for life, and was often interviewed by journalists thrilled to be banned from accepting so much as a glass of water from her.

Hugh Pennington, emeritus professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, said that the women incarcerated in Epsom posed only a small risk to the public.

“They certainly were infectious, they had the potential to spread the infection to others if they had poor hygiene and they were preparing food and all that type of thing,” he said.

“But as a public health risk, I think they were basically targeted and there was a lot of over-exaggeration about the threat they posed.”

Responding to the report today, a spokesman for the Department of Health said: “There was not, and never has been, a policy of incarcerating anyone, in this context.

“There were long-standing powers under the 1984 Public Health Act (and legislation dating back to the 1880s) for a JP (justice of the peace, or magistrate) to order that someone be detained in a hospital if he is suffering from a notifiable disease, and if proper precautions against his infecting others would not be taken. Typhoid is a notifiable disease.

“The 1984 Act made provision for local authorities to approach JPs and request detention on public health grounds.”

Most of the records from the hospital were destroyed after it shut down but historians at Surrey History Centre in Woking have found some relevant documents in Long Grove’s ruins, the BBC said.

Typhoid fever is transmitted by the ingestion of food or water contaminated with faeces from an infected person. The disease is characterised by a prolonged fever, as high as 40C, sweating, gastroenteritis, and diarrhoea.


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