The Worst Instances Of Quarantines Throughout History

Quarantine is a process used to separate and restrict the movement of people or the transporting of goods of those that were exposed to a disease to keep it from spreading. The term comes from the Venitian word ‘Quaranta giorni’, meaning forty days. This was the number of days ships were required to be isolated before allowed ashore during the outbreak of the Black Plague. The quarantining of people has raised questions about civil rights, among other things, as they aren’t always the most humane practice. These instances of quarantining throughout history didn’t end well.

The Black Death Killed 30% – 40% Of Europe’s Population

Black Death

In 1348, Venice was the first city to establish an institutionalized system of quarantines. This was during the outbreak of the Black Death, a disease that is estimated to have killed 30% to 60% of Europe’s population.

That year, the Venitian city council established a mandate that ships returning to the docks must stay out at sea for 40 days to see if anyone on board had contracted the disease. If the ship was contaminated the sailors were left to die or get better. Although ruthless, it was considered better than letting them back into the general population.

A Racist Quarantine In San Francisco

Racist Quarantine

In 1990, after allowing all the Caucasians leave, San Francisco authorities proceeded to wrap a 12-square-block of Chinatown in rope and barbed wire. They were afraid of bubonic plague outbreak after a Chinese immigrant was found dead in a hotel basement.

Although the quarantine was released after just a few days, it had resulted in countless other Chinese immigrants losing their jobs. Today, it is referred to as the “Bubonic Bluff” and at the time brought about the nasty discussion regarding the mass deportation of Chinese immigrants.

An Outbreak Of Typhus Led To A Discrimination Against Russian Jews

Russian Jews

In 1982, a boat carrying many Russian-Jew immigrants docked at Ellis Island. However, during the journey, many of the passengers in steerage had developed horrible cases of lice. They were described by the harbor inspector as the most “bedraggled group” he had ever seen. Lice lead to typhus, and by the time the passengers were discovered to be infected it had spread throughout the Lower East Side.

So, they sent patrols and rounded up more than 70 individuals from the boat and quarantined them on North Brother Island. Not long after, The New York Post printed: “We don’t need this kind of riff-raff on our shores,” talking about Russian-Jews.

Typhoid Mary Will Live In Infamy


In 1907, Mary Mallon, now known as Typhoid Mary, was an Irish-born cook who carried the bacteria that caused typhoid, a type of salmonella that caused extreme illness and even death. Being a cook, she caused an outbreak that was eventually traced back to her, and she was sent to North Brother Island in New York for a three-year quarantine.

She was released after swearing she would never cook again, a promise that she later broke. Once she was captured in 1915, she was taken back to North Island where she lived out the rest of her 23 years in quarantine on the island.

The Flu Epidemic Quarantines In Europe And The United States Were Extremely Socially Disruptive

Spanish Flu
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In the years between 1917 and 1919, there was a global flu pandemic known as the Spanish Flu that killed upwards of 50 million people. In both Europe and the United States, massive quarantines were issued which led to the closing of almost all schools, forbade public gatherings, and in some cases banned people from even leaving their houses.

Although these quarantines only slowed the spreading of the flu, they did cause major social disruptions. Things slowly began to fall apart as people were unable to go about their normal business, work, or receive the services that they needed.

The United States Incarcerated 30,000 Women On The Assumption They Had STDs

30,000 Women
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During World War I, the United States military was concerned about young men being ineligible for the draft due to sexually transmitted diseases. They noticed a fair amount of women and prostitutes hanging around the military training grounds, so they took matters into their own hands. A federal order was then issued to quarantine the girls hanging around the soldiers.

An estimated 30,000 women were incarcerated until they were deemed STD free. However, many remained imprisoned long after they had tested negative. Allan Brandt, Harvard medical historian notes, “There’s no evidence that this impacted the rates of transmission […] But there was this notion that these women constituted a serious threat to our success in the war.”

Andrew Speaker Was Immediately Quarantined After Traveling

Andrew Speaker

Back in 2007, Andrew Speaker, a lawyer from Atlanta was thought to have multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis. While waiting for his test results, Speaker went on vacation for his wedding and honeymoon visiting Europe where he traveled to Paris, Athens, Mykonos, Rome, and Prague.

He then flew to Montreal and when he crossed back into the United States was placed into the first involuntary isolation since 1963. Speaker apologized and claimed that the Center for Disease Control has cleared him to travel. Luckily, he didn’t infect anyone during the process.

New York Failed With Their Cholera Quarantine

Cholera Outbreak
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In 1832, there was a massive outbreak of Cholera in Britain and other parts of Europe. So, New York took extra precautions against incoming immigrants and wouldn’t allow ships to approach the dock if there was a suspect cholera patient onboard.

Much like the Black Death in the 1300s, if there was an infected person on the boat, they weren’t allowed to come ashore and the people on the boat were stuck there. However, the policy wasn’t as enforced as it should have been and New York ended up losing 3,500 of its 250,000 person population.

Canada Went All Out During The SARS Pandemic

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Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, was considered a pandemic in 2003, with countries all over the world establishing their own quarantines. Canada, however, took extreme precautions regarding the illness. According to the United States Institutes of Health, Canada had quarantined 100 people for every one person that was diagnosed with SARS in the entire country.

While Toronto only had a total of 250 cases, more than 30,000 were were quarantined to their homes and hospitals. Bejing, on the other hand, had a reported 2,500 cases with not nearly as strict quarantine policies.

China Had A Bubonic Plague Scare

China Bubonic Plague

In the summer of 2014, a man died in China after he fed his dog a plague-infected marmot. All 150 people who had come in contact with the man were immediately placed into quarantine and sections of the city he lived in were completely shut down, isolating all of the citizens inside.

According to Yanzhong Huang, a fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, “SARS taught Chinese leaders … the wrong lesson — that quarantine was the magic bullet in addressing any major infectious disease outbreak.” The quarantine was lifted two days later with no one else being infected.

The Lack Of Knowledge About Yellow Fever Led To Disaster In Philadelphia

Lack Of Knowledge
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Between 1793 and 1795, one in ten people died of yellow fever in Philadelphia. At the time, those who were ill were taken and quarantined. There, they were subjected to harmful treatments such as bleeding, yet little did they know that yellow fever is transmitted through blood-to-blood contact, mostly by mosquitoes.

Thus, the bleeding of the patients and their lack of knowledge about the dangers of mosquitoes led to the quarantine ending in complete disaster.

Australia Wasn’t Prepared For The 1881 Smallpox Outbreak

Australia Smallpox
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Supposedly, the first case of smallpox that led to an outbreak in Australia was brought by a steamship from Brisbane in 1881. After the disease began to spread across the country, the government began taking hundreds of sick people and brought them to the North Head quarantine station.

Although this helped to prevent the spread of the disease in Syndey, it raised a lot of social issues. Those that were sick, as well as their families, were disgusted by the way they were treated in the facility. Many of them weren’t even provided with basic necessities such as clean towels and medical supplies.

Leper Colonies Were Around For Hundreds Of Years

Leper Colonies
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One of the first documented cases of a quarantine took place in Lyons in 583. They established “leper colonies” for people inflicted with the highly-contagious skin disease. The disease can be traced back in texts as far back as ancient Greece and is even mentioned in the Bible. The city of Lyons issued a mandatory quarantine of Leprosy to live among themselves until they eventually succumb to their illness.

Ultimately, the quarantine failed, but that didn’t stop other cities from trying the same thing. By the year 1,200, there were over 19,000 leper colonies across the continent. It was only until the introduction of antibiotics in 1900 that the disease was under control.

Protests Ended The 21-Day Ebola Quarantine In Liberia

Liberia Ebola
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In 2014 in Liberia, the entire neighborhood of West Point was sealed off after the residents raided the area looking for those sick with Ebola. The ill were then forced to flee to the slums which were then intended to be quarantined for an entire 21 days but lasted only 10 due to protests. In neighboring Sierra Leone, there was a three-day quarantine as officials went door to door looking for people who were ill, as well as providing soap to households.

According to Doctors Without Borders, “It has been our experience that lockdowns and quarantines do not help control Ebola, as they end up driving people underground and jeopardizing the trust between people and health providers.”

Things Became Violent In China

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In 2005, there were forced quarantine measurements taken in China for fear of the H5N1, a deadly flu strain. This only took place after numerous people had become ill with the flu. Essentially, the quarantine forced many citizens to stay in their houses and put their lives on hold.

Of course, this upset many citizens and led to social unrest. According to Dr. Henry Niman, the people who are quarantined “lose control of themselves and revolt against the authorities, resulting in many extra casualties. The people were told nothing. Many farmers thought it was “nothing, just a fight over a bunch of birds.”

Left In The Woods

Left In The Woods

Although keeping ships out on the water for 40 days was the first type of defense against the Black Death or bubonic plague, once it reached the shores, the game changed. Once people began falling ill, they began to quarantine the sick.

In 1374, the Duke of Milan signed an edict that established that all of the people who were sick from the plague would be taken outside of the city and left in the forest to either recover or die. Just three years later, the town of Ragusa mandated that anyone coming from plague-inflicted areas were isolated for a month for “purification by sun and wind.”

A Quarantine In Virginia Worked Better Than Expected

1866 Virginia

In 1866, a steamship bound to Virginia from Liverpool landed, only for the officers to realize that the ship’s passengers were infected with cholera. Apparently, 35 of the passengers and two of the crew had died during the voyage, so there was no way they were going to let the passengers walk freely into the population.

So, everyone aboard was quickly taken and locked into a strict quarantine to ensure that there would not be an outbreak. It is estimated that only 600 people died due to this incident.

President Benjamin Harrison Quarantined All Foreign Ships

Benjamin Harrison

In 1892, an Astatic cholera outbreak began to spread across the United States in the fall. With few options, President Benjamin Harrison had his surgeon general order that all foreign ships carrying immigrants were to remain out at sea for at least 20 days before being allowed to dock.

This meant that people on board lived in terrible conditions for an additional 20 days than they had planned. Not only was it unsanitary, but people on the ships had a far higher chance of getting sick in such close confines with others.

Separating Children From Their Parents

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In 1916, New York was hit with a poliomyelitis crisis. Unfortunately, it was so severe that the authorities had to forcibly remove children from their parents and place them in quarantine. Of course, wealthy parents were allowed to keep their sick children at home, while the less privileged children were corralled less-than-satisfying accommodations.

While many thought the quarantine would work, no matter how heartbreaking, by the time the disease began to fade more than 2,300 young New Yorkers had died.

There Was Almost A Wall Built For AIDS Affected Individuals

AIDS Quarantine

In 1985, the HIV/AIDS epidemic was at an all-time high with over 20,00 reported cases. Although there was never an official quarantine in the United States, there was certainly a discussion. In 1985, The New York Times reported that 51% of the American population was in favor of enacting a quarantine against individuals affected with aids.

Allan Brandt states, “There is this idea of building a wall against infection […] But we know how AIDS is transmitted, through very specific activities.” Regardless, some people still wanted to be safe than sorry.