Via the remarkable Hakai Magazine, Five Islands We Are Really Sick Of. Excerpt:
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.