Blog / Disease Epidemics

Typhoid is not Typhus!


And neither is it a person, so stop saying that!

Typhoid is bacteria and, thankfully, not a virus.  And that is a good thing, for we can kill bacteria [sometimes] with antibiotics [think about the meaning of that word] and soap can attack their cellular membranes and tear them apart.  Good sanitation goes a long way toward protection against these bad characters!

So why do we want to associate people with this terrible disease?  Like Mary?  Isn’t it enough just to call people toxic if they behave in such an infective fashion?  Bacteria really don’t care.  They just want to do their thing, and they enjoy doing that in you.

First, a little history to get more of your attention.  Have you ever had a high fever, headache, stomach pain, constipation or its twin ailment, diarrhea?  Probably not typhoid.  But at one time these symptoms were a life or death matter!  Typhoid is a type of Salmonella [aren’t they also involved in food poisoning?].  And vaccines are not completely protective.  So behave yourself, wash your hands and food, and protect other people!

Salmonella typhi is the typhoid pathogenic creature.  It is not the same species as the ones that cause food borne salmonellosis that get so much press these days.  But you get the picture.  These are dangerous creatures.  And get this.  If you get typhoid fever, you run the risk of developing holes in your intestine.  Then your insides leak out inside of you!  That is a terribly unfriendly and dangerous condition.

Typhoid bacteria pass through the feces and are transmitted by contaminated food and water.  That’s why sanitation is so critical.  And, to make matters worse, asymptomatic victims can become chronic spreaders after recovering from the disease [think Covid-19 and that word with new meaning, “superspreaders”].

What are bacteria?  Much more complex in structure than a virus, that’s for certain.  But something just as deadly. Bacteria are composed of cells, just like you are.  Just more primitive ones.  Prokaryotes, we call them [from Greek for “first nucleus”].  They even get their own kingdom of life, “Eubacteria” [“true bacteria,” to distinguish them from the “archaebacteria” living in stressed conditions, as perhaps they did as the earliest forms of life on this planet].

Bacteria have a cell membrane, just like our cells, but without any internal organelles.   Not nearly as sophisticated as our cells [which is not surprising since we like to call ourselves “eukaryotic,” meaning “true cells”].

Now, here is an interesting possibility.  What if the internal organelles in our “true” cells were once free-living prokaryotes that invaded us?  Kind of weird, but also a little groovy.  Take a look at the structure of your cellular mitochondria and chloroplasts and check out the theory of “endosymbiosis.”  Biology is such a wonderful science!

Being cells with identifiable cellular membranes, other organisms long ago learned how to attack bacteria.  Lucky for us, when we discovered how they did this.  Alexander Fleming, in England in 1928, was the first to demonstrate that the penicillin fungus could kill a bacterial culture.  Who would have thought that a lowly “mould” would save so many human lives?  Antibiotics we call their products, and for obvious reasons.  But they don’t work on viruses.  Viruses don’t have cell membranes.  Less is more is the viral game.

More than 10 million people get typhoid annually, with deaths greater than 125,000 people worldwide.  The disease is present, but relatively rare in the United States.  Perhaps less than 500 documented cases annually, with more than 5,700 U.S. citizens affected.  It is more prevalent in the less industrialized nations.  Therefore, travel precautions, including vaccination, should be undertaken.  These typhoid bacteria can only live in humans [they are not zoonotic].  How is that for an ecological burden!

Typhoid has been historically associated with a cook, Mary Mallon, and the poor sanitation in New York City of 1906.  That year, more than 600 people died of typhoid fever in the city.  Uncovering the source of the epidemic was an early success of medical investigation.  You see, Mary Mallon exhibited no symptoms!  [Sound familiar?]  She resisted hospitalization and was arrested.  She later unsuccessfully sued for her release on Constitutional grounds, including lack of due process.

After promising to no longer cook food for others, she was released.  But she soon enough returned to that profession, under another name, to make a living.  And she was related to another typhoid outbreak in 1915.  She was confined again, dying in 1938 of a stroke.  Today, we would call her a “superspreader” and, considering our Covid-19 infections, she would not be alone.

But let us now travel back further in time, as though this page was a Tardis, a time machine, and its author, a Doctor.  Back to 430 B.C.

The iron-making Etruscans dominated Central Italy, although their southern neighbors in the nascent Roman nation had broken free and begun their ascendance.  But Rome would not find an early, easy route to world domination.  The Gauls would burn Rome in 390 B.C. [the invaders being finally defeated by a malaria epidemic!].

The mighty Zhou Dynasty in China had begun to collapse, but was concentrating political power in the East.  The Kingdom of Kush, in Nubia, would soon begin to build more than 200 pyramids at Meroe.  After 1,000 years of domination, they had invaded Egypt.  And in Central America, the Olmec culture was waning, leaving behind giant sculptures of human heads as some kind of mysterious warning.  In the Ohio Valley of North America, the Adena Peoples were fashioning their many mound systems for unknown reasons, and burying caches of atlatl weapons.

But the biggest player on the world stage during that time was the Persian Empire.  From India, Iran, Arabia, Syria, and Egypt, the mighty Persian Empire glowered at the independence of the Greek City-States and their island nations.  Persian King Darius invaded Greece in 490 B.C., but was thwarted by the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon.  His son, Xerxes, was successful in burning Athens, but his navy was decisively defeated in the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C.

So what was so important, in the year 430, about such a powerful nation of city-states in Greece?  Two things.  Division and disease, both seemingly, now, too familiar around here.

Division.  The Greek City-States had separated into two warring factions.  Essentially, Sparta vs. Athens.  In 430, Sparta was laying siege to Athens.

Disease.  The Plague of Athens.  It killed about one-third of the Athenians that were holed up and concentrated inside the walls of the city during the siege.

The Athenian General [and historian], Thucydides, was there, and he was also afflicted.  Here is part of his description of the disease.

“The disease began with a strong fever in the head and reddening and burning in the eyes; the first internal symptoms were that the throat and tongue became bloody and the breath unnatural and malodorous.  This was followed by sneezing and hoarseness, and in a short time the affliction descended to the chest, producing violent coughing.  When it became established in the heart, it convulsed that and produced every kind of evacuation of bile known to the doctors … The exterior of the body … burst out in small blisters and sores.  But inside the burning was so strong that the victims could not bear [it] … ”

(P.R. Rhodes translation from Thucydides, “History of the Peloponnesian Wars”)


The Athenians didn’t recognize the disease that hit them.  But many scholars think it was either typhoid, typhus, smallpox, or even measles.  A lot of nasty choices.  Recent DNA analysis has implicated typhoid as the likely culprit.

Were the Spartans successful in the siege of their neighbors?  Not immediately, but that is part of the sadness.  Pericles, the famous Athenian leader, would die in the plague.  A depleted Athens would struggle, but finally surrender in 404 B.C.  Can a nation long remain victorious when so devastated by division and disease?

What happened to Greece thereafter?  This was the end of the “Classical Period” in Greece.  Macedon, to the north, eventually grew in strength, with Philip II, in 338 B.C., overwhelming Athens and leading to the conquests of his son, Alexander.  Finally, in 146 B.C., Greece began to be subsumed by the Roman Empire.

And what of typhus?  It sounds similar, and it is also bacterial.  It is one of the Rickettsia.  But it is spread by fleas, not feces.  Another species, [Rickettsia prowazekii, epidemic typhus], is spread by body lice, and has also been responsible for past epidemics of typhus.  But that species is now rare, and can be treated with antibiotics.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines Typhoid by referring to the word Typhus.  That word is developed from Greek, meaning, in part, “smoke and vapor.”

The OED also gives another meaning.  One from which we might take further education.  For it also refers to “conceit, vanity, and stupor.”



About Author

Ronald R. Van Stockum, Jr. is a lawyer, teacher, biologist, writer, guitarist, and recently an actor living on his family's old farm in Shelbyville, Kentucky. He has a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Santa Clara University, and a Masters and PhD. in Biology from the University of Louisville. He also has his Juris Doctorate in Law from the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law. He practices law from offices in Shelbyville, Kentucky concentrating his legal practice in environmental law. His biologic research is in historical phytogeography. Dr. Van Stockum, Jr. has published numerous books, articles, and short stories in the areas of law, science, and creative writing. most of his 24 titles are available on this site and Amazon with many on Kindle and Audible!

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