Quarantine in History 1888

Provisions for the Prevention of the Spread of Infections
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TI was much interested last Winter in the subject of smallpox. Most people find it to their interest to have just as little to do with the dread disease as possible, and so would have I had not my professional duties called me into the tenement houses and so called hotels in which the pest waged its relentless and loathsome warfare. As it was I got vaccinated, had an awfully sore arm and learned a great deal about the disease.

It struck me the other day that it might be interesting to the readers of the Eagle, as Winter is again approaching, to know what special measures, if any, are now being taken against a recurrence of the disease, and to learn what safeguards exist against the importation of contagious diseases into this city and New York. With this idea in mind I called one day last week upon Health Commissioner Griffin and stated to him my plan. The commissioner entered into it heartily. "Why don't you," he said "commence at the fountain source of contagious diseases and describe 'quarantine' and the methods then used to prevent their importation. Dr. Convery, who has charge of all the shipping coming into this port, is not only an expert on the subject but an enthusiast." The Commissioner's suggestion struck me as a sensible one. He then introduced me to Dr. George Convery. Dr. Convery is a slim young man of about 35, with a thin, intelligent face. In the earlier part of his career the doctor was a ship's surgeon on one of the steamers plying to Mediterranean ports in one of which he nearly died of yellow fever. It was probably this circumstance that led him to take up the subject of quarantine as a special study. He said he would be delighted to tell the Eagle what he knew on the subject. The doctor first took up the origin of Quarantine, speaking of its use and abuse as follows:

"Regulations," he said, "for preserving the health of men against foreign contagions make so considerable a part of the laws of all civilized nations, that it is very interesting to know in what state of society, and under what circumstances they arise, that we may thereby be a better judge of their value and usefulness. It appears, upon investigation, that they were originally adopted before the principles of science on which they depend had been known, and in times of fanaticism and terror. These regulations referred to three great objects: 1) Quarantines; 2) lazarrettos; 3) areas and stores for receiving unladed goods and merchandise.

On examining the history and actual condition of each of these places in early times, it will be found that, in most cases, they were instrumental in engendering and perpetuating the pestilences it was their object to avoid and subjugate. The expeditions of the Franks, or Christians of the west, who, in the spirit of crusading, poured into Palestine to rescue it from the Mohammedans, gave rise to the quarantines of ships. Readers of accounts of these expeditions well knew what misery, want, uncleanliness and disease accompanied them as they marched or sailed. During the wars that waged between the Christians and Mohammedans for the possession of India the religious animosity of the two factions had been carried on with the utmost hatred and by every species of private and public aggravation; and as the Christians at last quitted the country of the patriarchs they charged the Turks with all their disasters and accused them of being the authors of almost all the evils which they suffered; among other miseries, and that not the least, they affirmed that the Asiatic had infected them with the plague. To countenance this notion they declared that the Turks were fatalists, and, as they took no precautions to avoid or destroy the cause of this horrible disease, it was always present and active among them. Persuading themselves that this contagion, if introduced into Europe, would spread and consume like a conflagration, they clamored that a prudent government, therefore, should guard against it by every available means.

"An interdiction of all intercourse with the infected cities of the Archipelago and the Levant promised the most perfect security from the contagion, but the policy and commerce of nations forbade so strict a prohibition. It was therefore agreed that maritime trade might be carried on, provided merchandize, voyagers, and everything they carried with them were subjected to what were considered salutary restraints: and one of these restraints was a quarantine, or detention for forty days and forty nights, to conquer the pestilential contagion, or let it die for want of something to feed upon. "

"How it happened that 'forty' days were mixed upon as the period of detention can only be explained on the ground of a religious or superstitious veneration for the number 'forty.' Thus, we have the term quarantine from quarantia-forty. Under the above rules it was the custom to hold dirty or infected vessels, with a perishable cargo, in a hot climate until they became more foul and dangerous from the multiplication of the formites within them than they had been during the voyage. During these forty days detention of the ship and cargo, the passengers who were actually sick, or supposed to have contagion lurking about them, were removed to a hospital to remain until the period of danger was supposed to have passed. In consonance with the general plan of this early quarantine system, these hospitals, known by the odious and revolting names of lazar houses or lazarettes, being frequently constructed of very durable materials (much like prisons), were the receptacles for a great number of years in succession of all the newly arrived persons who were thought to be proper subjects of detention. Hence they became remarkably foul and pestilential and those unfortunates who happily escaped the suspected plague generally became shortly after affected with what is known as prison, ship, or typhus fever. From the accumulation of all manner of impurity from year to year, these lazarettos themselves became the nurseries of direful epidemics, and many times ships that have entered these ports in a clean condition have departed foul as a result of lying for forty days in a hot climate with the atmosphere contaminated from the hospitals, in which the filth and corruption of years was supplying the medium for the propagation of the portable disease germs. Howard's account of his detention at the lazaretto of Venice gives a striking example of how these institutions were conducted. "Soon after unloading the post," he writes, "the sub prior came and showed me my lodging in the New Lazaretto, which was a very dirty room full of vermin and without a table, chair or bed. The next morning I employed a person to wash the room, but this did not remove the offensiveness of it or prevent that constant headache which I had been used to feel in visiting the lazarettos and hospitals of Turkey."

"Thus it is that because quarantines were established in the days of Ignorance, rancor and intolerance between the Christians and the Turks, they have been adopted as a matter of course by the civilized nations in their intercourse with each other. As knowledge of diseases and their causes, however, became more thoroughly understood, many of the objectionable features of the old quarantine system became eliminated and a great and hampering burden was lifted from the shipping trade and a useless hardship removed from travelers. Obstructive quarantine is now almost a thing of the past, although some countries, Italy and Austria still retain many of the useless and ridiculous features of the darker ages.

"The time of detention at quarantine stations has been greatly modified of late years, this being especially so in the cases of steam vessels. At the time when steamships and sailing vessels were treated alike great complaints and dissatisfaction arose, and many went to the extent of condemning quarantines as being absolutely useless. That boarding stations are of utility there can be no manner of doubt, and if the officers of them exercise due vigilance and enforce the hygienic purification, disinfection and sequestration of suspected or discovered disease, no epidemic should be possible from importation. As the quarantine station of the Port of New York is the most important in the world, probably, the question has more than once arisen as to whether it contained the necessary accommodations, equipment and facilities for coping with a serious invasion of cholera, and whether its general management was such as to give a sense of security to the citizens of New York and Brooklyn. Both of these questions must be answered in the negative. it is admitted by the Health Officer himself that the establishment is not up to the highest standard of excellence. And when, last September, the Alesla, with sixty-four cases of cholera among 551 Italian passengers, arrived at this part, the institution was felt to be hardly able for the task of jugulating the disease and preserving a proper state of cleanliness, a difficult thing to do, as, from the pumps being out of order, the water supply was not sufficient. The wonder is not that only thirty-five cases occurred altogether, but that the cities of new York and Brooklyn and the country at large did not become scorched and scourged by this horrible plague. Should the disease have appeared in the months of July and August, instead of in the latter part of September, it is more than likely that it would not have been confined to Swinburne island; for, if credence may be placed in the history of cholera epidemics, only the most stringent regulations can give any safe-guard against its spread.

"The diseases subject to quarantine at this port are cholera, yellow fever, typhus fever and small-pox. As to typhus fever, it so seldom occurs, except among sailors in dirty sailing vessels, that it is of no consequence and need not receive notice in conjunction with the subject of quarantine. Small-pox, too, being so easily stamped out by proper vaccination, calls for no comment, except that when cases pass quarantine and come into the City of New York or Brooklyn it calls attention to the fact that there is a want of care at the place where the greatest vigilance is needed, and gives rise to the disquieting thought that if smallpox slips by, why not cholera and yellow fever? As during the season' cases of yellow fever are of very common occurrence at quarantine, the fact that it is feebly, if at all, contagious, is the probable reason of our immunity from it, for, as it has before now passed into New York and Brooklyn, it is liable to do so again. With regard to cholera, we are brought; face to face with a very different disease. It does not limit itself to the seaboard, as yellow fever, but passes with fearful rapidity in every direction, and, though not contagious, like smallpox, or typhus fever, or scarlatina, still every cholerale stool or substance contaminated with the excrets becomes a focus for disseminating the poison. When it is considered how frightfully rapid is the spread of this disease and how small the quantity of infecting material sufficient to create an epidemic, can we hope that an institution confessedly crippled will be able to hold in check the invasion of it when, sooner or later, it reaches our shores in greater strength than the installment brought by the Alesia? While it is not the purpose of this article to excite alarm in the minds of the community, still it is well to have a just appreciation of the place upon which our safety depends and concerning the workings of which he report of the State Board of Health's investigating concludes as follows: "In conclusion, sir, from all the evidence I have been able to collect, it is the unanimous opinion of those posted on such matters, that it would be difficult to imagine a worse state of affairs than now exist at the quarantine station. It is hard to realize in this age of civilization that the harbor of the City of New York should be so inadequately provided with facilities for the prevention and extinction of an epidemic."

The State Board of health does not consider it within its province to pronounce upon the actions of the quarantine authorities. I have merely endeavored to give a few facts concerning the condition of affairs as they were found by the different persons who visited the station, and allow you to form your own judgment upon it. That the health of the State, and the country was put in great jeopardy by the culpable unreadiness of the station admits of no question. In another article I will take up the quarantining of arriving passengers, showing the methods used to protect New York and Brooklyn from danger of infection from them, and how far from adequate they are for this purpose.


Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Quarantine in History 1888
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


 The Brooklyn Eagle August 5, 1888
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