While it’s easy to look at the events which Shah’s Contagious Divides in a vacuum as unique to San Francisco, the threat of disease amidst failing cultural relations was a very real threat in other parts of the country. One way to look at the events of the outbreaks in the Bay Area is to look similarly at the Irish in New York. This can give a good view of the role race plays in these situations, where there are similar cultural issues and facts in both cases, but the race factor is missing from one.
The events with the Irish I’m talking about is the treatment of Mary Mallon, or better known as “Typhoid Mary.” Mary was an Irish houseworker in New York who was attributed with the infection of over 50 people, including 3 deaths, in the early 1900s. (New York Times) She had bounced household to household leaving a trail of the infected behind her. Much like in San Francisco, there was a Board of Public Health investigation done, and she was found to be the cause, although she herself showed no signs of the illness.
Mary was confined to North Brother Island, as seen above, on the East River, and from which she wrote a fairly scathing letter about the process she was forced to undergo and the conditions on the island. Mary was effectively castaway from society because of her illness and her inability to grasp the scientific knowledge of her situation.
While this may have been worse for Mary than individual treatments of the Chinese in San Francisco in which they were quarantined as a whole, the New York Irish no doubt made out much better than the San Francisco Chinese as far as the community and social relations goes. While the Chinese lost many of their rights and freedoms, there seems to have been almost no backlash against the Irish community as a whole which is very counter to the Chinese experience. (Shah)
What this shows us is that experiences of ethnic groups varied greatly by location and the imagined/experienced landscape of social standing by race. While the factors leading up to the outbreaks may have been different (existence, reputation, health issues of Chinatown) the issue of being marginalized group in a large city remains largely the same, and arguably, Typhoid Mary’s outbreaks in NYC seem to have taken a larger physical toll on the city with a confirmed 51 infected. It really comes down to the perception of racial and ethnic groups as a community or individual people. It would seem that Mary Mallon’s health and hygiene were attributed to her own shortcomings rather than something that needed to be expunged from a specific community.