The History of Quarantine Is the History of Discrimination
Mary Beth Keane @Mary_Beth_Keane Oct. 6, 2014
Mary Beth Keane is the author of Fever, a novel about Typhoid Mary.
Getting sick is not a crime, so how do we bridge the divide between protecting the public’s health and preserving individual civil liberties?
By now most people know that Thomas Eric Duncan is the first Ebola patient diagnosed in the United States, and that he’s being kept in isolation at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. Recently arrived from Liberia, he was staying with four relatives when he became ill; for several days after Duncan’s diagnosis, these four most at risk remained trapped in their home, alone with the towels Duncan used when he bathed, the utensils he used to eat, the sheets he sweated through as his temperature rose. As of Friday morning, they’d been moved to a more remote location, also under armed guard, but where they are free to venture outside.
The word quarantine comes from the Italian quaranta, meaning forty, or the number of days ships had to remain isolated at sea before the people on board could go ashore during the height of the Black Plague, when as many as 50 million 14th century Europeans died. Here in the US, the use of quarantine as a public health tool has almost never been without controversy, mainly because the large-scale quarantines in our nation’s history have always meant taking a group of people, usually in the lowest income bracket or of the same minority group, and placing them apart. Looking at a history of quarantine means looking at a history of discrimination.
The most infamous case of involuntary isolation in the U.S. is that of Mary Mallon—better known in folklore as Typhoid Mary. Though her case hit the headlines in 1907, it becomes newly relevant whenever the U.S. faces a health crisis that pits protecting the public against an individual’s civil rights. Mallon, who arrived from Ireland as a teenager in 1883, was finding steady work cooking for New York City’s wealthiest families when an ambitious sanitary engineer identified her as the first healthy carrier of typhoid fever. The main difference between Mallon and Duncan is that Mallon was asymptomatic, and she claimed to have never had Typhoid fever. Doctors could prove she harbored the bacteria in her body, but acknowledged that in every way she was the picture of perfect health. Instead of trying to educate Mallon about her unique condition at a time when the average person knew so little about germs, the Department of Health along with the New York City Police Department showed up at the Upper East Side home where she was employed and arrested her without a warrant. “Typhoid Mary,” headlines read in newspapers all over the country; the nickname has survived far longer than any memory of who she really was.
Treated like a criminal even as health officials admitted that she harbored typhoid fever through no fault of her own; placed in forced isolation even as those same officials acknowledged that New York probably had hundreds if not thousands of healthy carriers moving about in the big city, her case was riddled with contradictions from the start. Stubborn and intelligent, the woman at the center of it all struck me from the beginning as a character I wanted to understand better; so much so that I ended up writing a novel about her life. After reading about the period for many months, it came to me: Mallon’s case was just as much about gender and class prejudices as it was about typhoid. Maybe more so.
Liberalism is freedom for aggression.