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Before antibiotics, there were quarantine islands. From their beginnings as a desperate response to the Black Death, to their heyday during waves of 19th-century immigration, to their surprising denouement as close-knit communities, these five quarantine islands tell the story of our uneasy relationship with disease—and with those afflicted.
Santa Maria di Nazareth, Italy
The Black Death brought unprecedented suffering to Europe, but also unprecedented procedures for pandemic response. The plague first reached Italy’s Mediterranean ports in 1347, and panicked officials in Venice isolated ships coming from infected ports for quaranta giorni—a “quarantine” of 40 days—the length likely inspired by the 40 days Jesus wandered the desert while tempted by Satan. In 1377, officials near the town of Ragusa—modern-day Dubrovnik—used islands to isolate sick ship passengers. Venice eventually followed suit, co-opting Santa Maria di Nazareth, an island in Venice’s lagoon, as the first island with a comprehensive quarantine station. The name Nazareth gave rise to lazaretto (after Lazarus, the biblical character raised from the dead), a word that is still used for communities isolated by sickness.
Partridge Island, Canada
Something called a coffin ship is bound to be horrifying, but for victims of the 1840s Irish potato famine, these floating, disease-ridden death traps offered a possible version of deliverance: hope of a better life across the ocean. Even knowing that up to three in 10 passengers would likely die of starvation or diseases such as typhus before setting foot in their new home, the voyage was, for many, a risk worth taking. Canada and other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, readied for the influx of immigrants. New Brunswick’s Partridge Island, Canada’s oldest quarantine island, processed nearly 15,000 of the approximately 100,000 Irish refugees to British North America in 1847. It would be another century before a vaccine put the last nail in typhus’s coffin, and, with this and other medical advances, the Partridge Island quarantine station officially closed in 1942.
Isla de Flores, Uruguay
Quarantine islands were the airport security of the 1890s—a drag that everyone tried to breeze through. By then, quarantine procedure had evolved from a panicked reaction to routine annoyance. Take Isla de Flores off the coast of Montevideo. In 1899, the USS Newark approached the three-islet chain from Rio de Janeiro, a hotbed of yellow fever. To avoid quarantine, Vice Admiral Joseph Taussig and his crew washed everything that had touched the water of Rio’s harbor, but, rules were rules, and port officials ordered 24 hours of observation.
Isla de Flores had an efficient tri-island triage. Officials assessed ships at the first islet and sent anyone showing signs of illness to the second’s hospital via a small railway. (Corpses took the train all the way to the crematorium on islet number three.) Luckily, the crew of the Newark was fever-free, and Taussig suffered only boredom while dirty clothes and hammocks were ferried to shore for disinfection, recording in his diary that “the process was very slow, taking nearly all day.”
In 1918, John Martin Poyer was the governor of American Samoa where he routinely tackled some “big” problems—two villages fighting over a cricket game, for example. (Poyer confiscated the villagers’ guns and forbade them from playing each other.) But when a greater challenge emerged with news of the worldwide Spanish flu epidemic, Poyer turned the idea of a quarantine island on its head—he kept the world away. Every ship was quarantined for five days before passengers could disembark. It worked: American Samoa was one of the few places in the world where no one died of the flu. In contrast, on nearby Western Samoa, one in five people perished, grimly demonstrating the power of quarantine.
Sorokdo, South Korea
Today, one of the few remaining quarantine islands exists because of one of the most ancient recorded diseases: leprosy. Although a cure for leprosy was found 60 years ago, its stigma is alive and well and continues to shape the fate of Sorokdo. Established in 1916, the quarantine island housed lepers who endured forced labor, sterilization (allegedly without anesthetic), and medical experiments. But, surprisingly, many former lepers have remained. To these often-disfigured survivors, living with others like themselves is less traumatic than suffering the hate and fear that prevails in the off-island world. One of the world’s last leper colonies—and quarantine islands—is bound not by sickness, but by sympathy.