Rio History: Quarantine, A Brief History

Special to the PRESS

The practice of quarantine, as we know it, began in Europe during the 14th century. Ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. This practice, called quarantine, was derived from the Italian words quaranta giorni which mean 40 days.

Yellow fever and Cholera outbreaks were very common in Texas during the 1800s, so much so that in 1870, the State Legislation passed an Act declaring quarantine on the Texas Coast. Each community was ordered to establish a quarantine station at “a safe distance from the usual places of landing for ships.” All ships were inspected at sea, if any sign of fever or vomiting were noted the vessel would be placed under quarantine.
Locally appointed health officers, paid $10 a day, had absolute jurisdiction over cargo, crew and passengers of all ships docked in the harbor. If a craft from an infected port tried to land without a bill of health from the proper official they could be fined not less than $500 and not more than $5,000. Attempting to by-pass the station altogether could result in a jail sentence of two years or more. Anyone aboard a vessel under quarantine was forbidden to go ashore under penalty of $50-$500 fines. Cargo could not be landed without first undergoing fumigation. Before the first station on Padre Island was built, quarantined ships were kept at anchor just inside the bar; the crew passengers and cargo were kept aboard until 20 days passed with no signs of infection.

The first quarantine station which consisted of a large hospital tent and seven smaller “pup” style tents was established on Clark Island which lies to the west of Brazos Island. At that time the two were only separated during high tide. The west end of Clark Island, which is almost two square miles and about 12 feet above sea level, was covered with grasses, cactuses and stunted mesquite bushes. Making use of a 3-foot deep channel, small skiffs were able to approach within 100 feet of the land where a wooden pier extended out over the water so the quarantined souls did not have to wade ashore.

In 1882, a wooden structure was erected on Padre Island just north of the lighthouse which would put it somewhere near the pilings of the old causeway. This structure served as “home” for anyone suspected of being infected. Primitive as it looked, the old wooden structure was probably as comfortable a place as any to spend 20 days of quarantine. Shuttered windows could be opened wide on all sides thus ensuring any breeze could be directed through the building and the living area was perched about 10 feet off the ground. There was even a little room located atop the structure that had a wrap-around deck wide enough to walk about.

Early research by Dr. W.C. Gorgas, an army physician stationed at Fort Brown proved that yellow fever was not caused by a gas rising from decaying vegetation, but from the bite of a certain type of mosquito that carried the dreaded virus in its saliva. As a result, fever-bearing mosquitoes were eradicated and the occurrence of epidemics dropped dramatically.

Outbreaks of cholera aboard ships arriving from Europe in the 1890s however, prompted new laws giving the federal government more authority in imposing quarantine.

As local authorities came to realize the benefits of federal involvement, local quarantine stations were gradually turned over to the U.S. government and by 1921 the quarantine system was completely nationalized.

Today, The Division of Global Migration and Quarantine is part of CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases and is headquartered in Atlanta. Federal quarantine stations are located coast to coast and in Anchorage, Honolulu and San Juan in Puerto Rico. The CDC may, at its discretion, detain, medically examine, or conditionally release individuals and wildlife suspected of carrying one of the following communicable diseases; cholera, diphtheria, infectious tuberculosis, plague, smallpox, yellow fever, viral hemorrhagic fevers (such as Marburg, Ebola, and Congo-Crimean), and severe acute respiratory syndromes.

Quarantine Station personnel respond to reports of ill travelers aboard airplanes, ships, and at border crossings to assess any public health risk and initiate an appropriate response when needed.

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