Posted in History

Pandemics and Quarantine Through the Ages

What a long, strange trip it’s been since March 2020, when the latest pandemic has hit the country, Coronavirus (COVID-19). Almost 7 months later, we are still wearing masks, using hand sanitizer, and practicing staying 6 feet apart from those of us who aren’t in a nuclear family.  Personally, my college freshman daughter is doing her first semester online, over Zoom calls. This is complicated!

All of this has got me thinking about the past Pandemics and Quarantines through the ages. We’ve had our share: Antonine Plague (165-180), Japanese Smallpox (735-737), The Black Death (1346-1353), Great Plague of London (1665), Philadelphia Yellow Fever (1793), Cholera Pandemics 1-6 (1817-1923),  American Polio epidemic (1916), The Spanish Flu (1918-1919), HIV/AIDS (1981-current), American Ebola epidemic (2014-2016)… the list is massive. For a great visual representation of the history of pandemics, check out https://www.visualcapitalist.com/history-of-pandemics-deadliest/

By now you all should know that I’m a research nut, and love going down rabbit holes. After spending a couple days poring over scientific journals and articles on quarantine, pandemics, epidemics and the like, I realized after a certain amount of time, these things die off; or go silent until we wake it up again.

So, enough rambling… onto the main event: “Pandemics & Quarantine Through the Ages.”

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in its history of quarantine and isolation, says, “The practice of quarantine, as we know it, began during the 14th century in an effort to protect coastal cities from plague epidemics. Ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. This practice, called quarantine, was derived from the Italian words quaranta giorni which mean 40 days.”

This order came from the Adriatic port city of Ragusa (modern day Dubrovnik), which survived and in the Dubrovnik archives city records said that on July 27, 1377 they voted on a proposal that went into law that stated “those who come from plague infested areas shall not enter Dubrovnik or its district unless they previously spend a month on the islet of Mrkan (a nearby uninhabited island) or in the town of Catvat, (a small town south of Dubrovnik) for the purposes of disinfection.”

Did you know? 40 days was chosen because the number had great significance both religiously and historically. Think of Noah’s Ark (40 days/ 40 nights of rain when God flooded the earth); Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days; Jewish people wandered the desert for 40 years.

Alex Chase-Levenson, assistant professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, discussed the first British guide for travelers to Egypt in a guidebook from the 1840s: “Almost the whole introduction was about dealing with quarantine on the return trip. A central rationale for this system was the occasional presence of bubonic plague epidemics in Middle Eastern cities, but even when there were no reports of any disease, every person traveling from the Middle East to Western Europe needed to be quarantined, usually for at least three weeks … The quarantine system ensnared millions of people over its existence, roughly from the mid-eighteenth century to the 1850s. These people had to have their clothes fumigated, had to hand over every piece of mail to be dipped in vinegar and smoked. Sometimes, you can still smell that on early nineteenth-century letters.1

Broadsheets like this one produced for the Parish of Clerkenwell announced outbreaks like cholera, and its symptoms and remedies.

In the Louvre hangs Antoine-Jean Gros’ 1804 work “Napoleon Bonaparte Visiting the Plague- Stricken of Jaffa,” depicting Napoleon’s Syria campaign in March 1799. “Bonaparte, who had become First Consul, wanted it to help clear the accusations of the British press, who had alleged that he had wanted to execute the plague-stricken during his retreat to Cairo. The painting, presented at the 1804 Salon shortly before his coronation – a particularly opportune moment for Bonaparte – is the first masterpiece of Napoleonic history painting.”

Antoine-Jean Gros “Napoleon Bonaparte visiting the Plague-Stricken of Jaffa” 1804, Louvre.

A takeaway from Chase-Levenson: “Quarantine is really the oldest precedent that the government needed to invest itself in the health of the nation as a whole, that putting money from taxation behind a medical measure was legitimate. So, it’s a crucial precedent for our modern understanding that the state should be responsible for public health, for the wellbeing of its citizens. Also: Long before there were passport control lines, quarantine constituted a major border regime. There are many ways this system shaped our understanding of what modern states should do.”2

Interested in knowing more? Book Doctor Dara recommends:


Zlata Blazina Tomic and Vesna Blazina’s book Expelling the Plague: The Health Office and the Implementation of Quarantine in Dubrovnik, 1377-1533, was published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2015.

Jane Stevens Crawshaw’s article, “The Renaissance Invention of Quarantine,” appears in The Fifteenth Century XII: Society in an Age of Plague, edited by Linda Clark and Carole Rawcliffe, and published in 2013.

Note: The Featured Image is an 1892 map detailing the cases of the Russian flu pandemic across the globe in 16 different time periods, from May 1889 to October 1890 from The National Library of Medicine.

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