America is no stranger to contagion or epidemics. At times they have even been viewed as a fact of life, as real as the changing of the seasons.
According to an article by Drs. T.S. Powell, R.C. Ward and W.T. Goldsmith in the Souther Medical Record published in 1882, jt is estimated that between 1700 and 1800 for instance, 600,000 people died worldwide every year from smallpox alone. Throughout this time, however, actions were taken by the public to stop the spread of these outbreaks however they could. Often times this led to a quarantine.
In 1923, Elizabeth Tandy wrote“Local Quarantine and Inoculation for Smallpox in the American Colonies: 1620-1775,” published in the American Journal of Public Health.
“As early as 1731,” she wrote, “the first legislative measures in the U.S. colonies were passed to stop the spread of smallpox, a disease that at several moments rose to the level of an epidemic in the history of America. In this year Massachusetts passed ‘An Act to Prevent Persons from Concealing Smallpox.’ This Act required that any location where smallpox had been reported that a pole with a red flag be hung outside of that home or establishment until such place was later deemed to be aired and cleansed.
“The penalty for failing to do this amounted to a fine of 50 pounds for the owner of the property. Guards were also hired to stand outside of these locations to prevent people from entering or leaving in order to stop the spread of the virus.”
Quarantines aren’t unique to the United States, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
“Quarantines like these have been done since as early as the 14th century in Europe and some lasted for significant amounts of time. The word quarantine, in fact, comes from the Italian words ‘quaranta giorni’ which translates to 40 days. This referred to the amount of time that foreign ships had to remain anchored off the coast of port cities like Venice, Italy, during times of outbreak before they could land ashore.”
And quarantines aren’t new to Grand Island. In fact, The Grand Island Daily Independent was reporting on Dec. 6, 1900, that: “Quarantines have also had a prominent local history in the Hall County community. In December of 1900 Grand Island suffered a smallpox outbreak that affected several members of the community. At this time several parts of Nebraska were affected by this virus including St. Paul, Nebraska City, and Decatur where as many as 300 people contracted smallpox.
“This prompted the city leaders of Grand Island into action. According to local physician Dr. Henry Boyden of Grand Island ‘the thing to do … was to use every precaution and every measure to stop the disease — close the library, the public schools if necessary and place guards at every house as long as it was absolutely necessary.’
“At the direction of Dr. Boyden and Dr. Towne of the State Board of Health, a plan for quarantine was enacted that much resembled the measures taken by the Massachusetts colony in 1731. Placards were printed and hung notifying the public of the areas where smallpox was present, and guards were posted at locations where smallpox had been identified. Additionally, doctors were also compelled to report every new case of smallpox that emerged, and a “pest house” was created to quarantine all individuals who had contracted the virus.”
(This information was obtained from the Hall County Nebraska Digital Community Archives at http://hallcountyne.advantage-preservation.com)
Through such legislative and civic actions, communities in Nebraska, as well as communities in every state in the Union have combated the epidemics of the past. While smallpox did not see widespread eradication until vaccinations were available at all levels of society in the 20th century, the small actions done by community members in the examples above made these outbreaks less severe.
As long as members of the public remain calm, follow basic sanitary norms, listen to medical experts and public officials, and receive vaccinations whenever possible, the Hall County community, as well as the American public at large will continue to make it through these epidemics whenever they arise.