How a poor leper started quarantines

Ties to Lazarus, patron of the sick, and Venice’s first quarantine

What does the poor man Lazarus in Jesus’ parable have to do with quarantines?

St. Lazarus the beggar, covered with sores, became the patron saint for lepers and the poor, especially the sick. Lepers, as we know from the Bible, were isolated for fear of contagion. As the Christian church developed, many religious communities took over the care of lepers, setting up special places for them that became known as “Lazar houses” in honor of Lazarus. (Lazarus in Hebrew — Eleazar — means “God has helped.”)

Black Death

Various plagues, especially bubonic plague (known as the Black Death because its victims’ lymph nodes swelled and turned black) spread throughout Asia, Europe and Africa. This was especially true in the 14th century. People did all they could to avoid the contagion. Germ theory developed over the centuries, but was not fully accepted and proven until the late 1800s with the work of people like Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch and Joseph Lister. And the fact that plague was spread by fleas carried in rats that arrived in ships was not known for centuries.

However, the spread of plague was dreadfully clear, with at least 25 million Europeans dying of it between 1346 and 1353. Those with plague, or suspected of having it, were isolated. Sometimes they were confined at home — with many houses, such as in England, closed up and painted with a red cross — and sometimes outside of the community.

First quarantine

This happened most famously in Venice, Italy. In the 14th century, the first place to put up what we would recognize today as a quarantine center was the port city of Ragussa, on the Adriatic Sea. (There were earlier ones in the ancient world.) Now part of Dubrovnik in Croatia, it was ruled by Venice in the 13th and early 14th centuries. Venice was a maritime power with many ports. Any merchants or ships coming to Ragussa were required to wait for at least a month on the small outlying islands surrounding the port.

The city of Venice also set up quarantine sites on islands around Italy. The first, established in 1403, came to be known as Lazzaretto Vecchio because it was set up on an island called Santa Maria di Nazareth. However, people also called it Nazarethum and it appears the name changed to Lazzaretto rather quickly. Here, both lepers and those with plague were sent. A second island quarantine site, called Lazzaretto Nuovo, was set up for all ships. If anyone aboard showed any sign of plague, the ship was not allowed into Venice’s docks until 40 days had passed without anyone else aboard showing signs of plague.

Forty days

Why 40 days was chosen is not entirely clear — but most sources believe it was biblical in nature. After all, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert, it rained in the time of Noah for 40 days and the Hebrews wandered in the desert for 40 days.

Whatever the origin, those 40 days gave us the word “quarantine” — from the quaranta giorni meaning “40 days” in Italian.

Other lazzaretti were built along the Venetian lines across Europe and even in the United States. For example, Liberty Island was once called Bedloe Island and, in the mid-1700s, was a quarantine site during a smallpox outbreak.

Capital city quarantine

A similar quarantine station was established in Philadelphia around that same time. Philadelphia was then the national capital and the government was driven out by fear of small pox in 1793.

A new facility was built in 1799 in Tinicum, Penn., about 10 miles from Philadelphia on the Delaware River. Every ship headed to Philadelphia had to stop there first and its captain answered a series of questions. The cargo was also inspected. If anything suspicious was found, the entire ship, crew and passengers were quarantined. And the ships were charged for their room and board for the 40 days. (The site remains the oldest surviving quarantine hospital in the United States and currently houses the Tinicum Township offices.)

This continued until about 1878, when the U.S. federal government took over the quarantine system under the National Quarantine Act, just before a cholera epidemic erupted on the East Coast (1881-1896). It took several decades to nationalize the system.

The Public Health Service Act of 1944 led to the agency which we today know as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which took over national quarantine functions in 1967. At that time, according to the CDC, there were 57 national quarantine stations. The number now stands at 20 stations. Today, the CDC monitors the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, which has also led to local and state quarantines.

 

Sources: CDC.gov; freelibrary.org; ushistory.org; The Philadelphia Inquirer; history.com; National Geographic;  discovermagazine.com; atlasobscura.com; insidethevatican.com; The United States National Library of Medicine at nih.nlm.gov; omeka.wustl.edu and animalresearch.info