Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, an unthinkably large swath of humanity is now under quarantine. But even though the act of quarantining itself makes sense on its face, knowing the origin of the word “quarantine” still helps to illuminate the reason why many of us are now stuck inside our homes, watching more streaming content than you could shake a six-foot stick at. Although be warned: Knowing the origin of the word “quarantine” stands as a reminder of just how dark outbreaks of disease can become.
According to a 2002 article published in the journal,
The article, authored by Philip A. Mackowiak and Paul S. Sehdev, notes that after the Bubonic Plague arrived in southern Europe in 1347, it spread rapidly, and reached all the way to Germany, England, and Russia in just three years. To deal with those infected with the deadly disease (which was caused by a bacterium, not by a virus like SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19), strict infection-control measures were enacted throughout the continent, including in the Mediterranean seaport of Ragusa, which is now the city of Dubrovnik in Croatia.
After one particular recurrence of the plague at the Italian-speaking seaport, its chief physician, Jacob of Padua, advised that its residents build a place outside the city’s walls for those infected with the disease. He based his advice on knowledge of early contagion theory, which basically said: If somebody’s sick, keep them away from anybody who’s healthy.
Staying at home helps to protect you, your family, healthcare workers and first responders and slow the spread of #coronavirus. Learn more at https://t.co/iH2iReYrBq. #COVID19 pic.twitter.com/mTX05wXf1P— CDC (@CDCgov) March 26, 2020
Even though Padua’s tactic only proved to be “modestly effective” (the authors’ words), it still led to the city’s Great Council passing a law requiring a 30-day isolation period, or
Following the establishment of the word
So the next time you’re talking about quarantine, remember that the term is derived from a 15th century Italian word for a 40-day isolation, which became a popular, albeit ineffective, method for combating the spread of perhaps the worst disease humankind has ever faced. Although don’t get the issue mixed up: Quarantining, when applied according to modern public health principles, is highly effective. Which means your seemingly endless stay in work-from-home-and-stream-content-until-your-eyes-bleed purgatory will not be in vain.
What do you think about the origin of the word “quarantine”? Are there any major details missing from this historical recap that you think should be included? Infect your fellow readers with your thoughts in the comments!