Stop Breathing My Air

a brief history of the quarantine

by by Joy Neumeyer

illustration by by Laura Armstrong

Quarantines confine healthy people who may have been exposed to a communicable disease.

The first known quarantines appear in the Old Testament, which depicts priests’ isolation of lepers.


As the Black Death ravaged 14th century Europe, Venice created the first institutionalized quarantine, confining ships and people in its port for 40 days before entering (the word “quarantine” refers to this 40 day period).

In 1374 the Duke of Milan mandated that plague sufferers be transported outside the city to a field or forest until they were restored to health or died. The town of Ragusa required that incoming travelers be subject to a month’s isolation of “purification by sun and wind.”


England mandated 40-day quarantines for arriving ships in 1663 as plague struck continental Europe. Disease hit anyway in 1665-1666, inspiring Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), based on Samuel Pepys’s account of the London plague. Among other quarantine horrors, the novel recounted mass forced incarcerations by pointy-masked doctors.


After yellow fever hit Philadelphia in 1793, the city built a huge quarantine station, “the Lazaretto,” which still stands ten miles outside town.


With the rise of bacteriology in the 1890s, scientists began to better understand diseases like typhoid and cholera. New knowledge about the life cycles of different bacteria started guiding rules for quarantines.

In 1900, officials quarantined an entire fifteen-block Chinese neighborhood in San Francisco and closed all businesses not owned by whites after the infection of one its inhabitants with bubonic plague. A court pronounced the quarantine discriminatory and lifted it.

In 1907 Irish immigrant Mary Mallon, better known as “Typhoid Mary,” was confined in New York City’s newly built quarantine facility on the East River, where she lived against her will for 26 years.


In 2005, the Bush administration drafted the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, which mandated closer coordination between agencies, stockpiling and distribution of vaccines and anti-viral drugs, and government-imposed quarantines. 

Today, the Center for Disease Control’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine operates eight national quarantine centers in the US.

Violation of quarantine is punishable by up to $250,000 in fines and a one-year prison term. Federal, state, and local public health officials may seek help from law enforcement to enforcement, including the FBI, Coast Guard, and U.S. Marshals, in their implementation. A Defense Department contingency plan empowers the military to assist quarantines and “restore and maintain order” in the event of resistance.

In fall 2009, swine flu has caused the quarantine of a Texas family, a Memphis federal prison, and countless college students. So far, the military has not been deployed in any cases.

JOY NEUMEYER ‘10 practices lycanthropy.