The History Of Quarantine: How Individual Actions Stopped Our Biggest Threats

By | April 4, 2020

With many cities, states, and even countries issuing "stay at home" orders to stop the spread of COVID-19, now might be a good time to look back through history at just what exactly quarantine is, where it came from, and how successful quarantine has proven in the past.

test article image
Plague doctor mask. (Getty Images)

Quarantine Through The Ages

Yersinia pestis, A.K.A. the Black Death or bubonic plague, is a bacterium that spread throughout Europe during the mid- and late-1300s, killing over 30% of the entire continent. Within a few days of exposure, a victim of the bubonic plague experienced high fevers, body aches, and nausea that sometimes resulted in vomiting blood while the lymph nodes (those things that help fight off infections) of their necks, armpits, and groins swelled massively. Once the infection reached the blood, body parts began to die off, and the victim's skin turned black. Overall, not a fun or pretty way to go.

The bacterial infection was spread by the bite of fleas, which often resided on the rats that swarmed city streets and kept second homes in the well-stocked underbellies of merchant ships. Since rodents have no idea of their own consciousness, let alone the concept of self-isolation, they spread the bacterium all across Europe on their globetrotting adventures. Unfortunately, medieval Europeans—who were considerably more self-aware but roughly equally knowledgeable about germ theory—never got a clear understanding of how the plague manifested, either.

The people of Venice, however, did land on something at least marginally useful. As the Venetians controlled many points of entry for merchant ships, they decided to stop all ships at the ports and isolate them for 40 days before allowing them onto the shore. The Italian word quarantino, derived from the word for the number 40, eventually morphed into the English "quarantine" as the practice became popular throughout Europe. Although the Plague was already spreading, most historians believe the Venetian quarantine was beneficial.  

test article image
Cassell's Illustrated History of England, Volume 3. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Persistence Of The Plague

The Plague reared its ugly head again and again over the course of the following centuries. One particularly frightful episode occurred in London, when the Great Plague of 1665 killed around 100,000 people. Initially, London officials decided to conduct a house-by-house quarantine, but it wasn't very successful, as people often fled their homes if someone became sick or died. Since the surrounding areas were often unwilling to accept Londoners at this time, the poor were sometimes left to starve.

While tragic, refusing entry to the potentially infected is understandable, given what happened to the nearby town of Eyam after a London merchant visited. The fleas that hid in the merchant's cloth found residence on animals and humans alike, and the Plague took a quick and savage hold of the small town. The local reverend eventually declared a quarantine from the rest of England, and although a horrific 80% of the town died, his swift action undoubtedly saved the lives of thousands of people in the region.

Finally, in the summer of 1666, the spread of the Plague began to abate. It was eradicated completely that fall by the Great Fire of London, which carried the unfortunate side effect of burning nearly 400 acres of the city. It was really not London's year.