Disease and Quarantine

Suppose you lived in medieval times and you broke your leg. The doctor wouldn't put your leg in plaster, but he might wrap it in wool spread with a dog's brains! You've got toothache? Burn a candle as close to your tooth as possible, so that the worms eating it will drop out of your mouth to escape the heat. An outbreak of plague? Hold a posy of herbs to your nose to keep you safe. Of course, if it was God's will or the wrong alignment of the planets that was making you sick, you might try hope, prayer, a magic charm or perhaps find a piece of clothing from a saint to make you better. Alternatively, you could have a hole drilled in your skull to release the devil that's making you sick.

Applying leeches to 'bleed' a patient, and the study (and tasting) of urine were also part of medieval medical practice. On the other hand, if your doctor failed to cure you, as happened with King John of Bohemia, you could take your revenge by having him sewn in a sack and thrown into the river!

One of the most dreaded diseases was leprosy. With no known treatment available, lepers were cast out of society and forced to live on charity, either in seclusion or with other lepers. Gradually, people began to understand that sick people could spread diseases to healthy people, and isolating the sick became common practice. In the early days, the most common communicable diseases were plague, cholera, smallpox, scarlet or yellow fever, typhus and typhoid fever.

The earliest maritime quarantine station was established in Venice in 1403 as a protection against plague. Other countries, concerned about the spread of plague and cholera, began to establish 'lazarets' to isolate sick people. Gradually the practice spread as more distant countries were settled.

In the early days of convict transport to Australia, sick passengers and crew were required to remain on board ship. Later, temporary quarantine stations were set up until, in 1837, a permanent site was opened at Sydney's North Head. By 1909, eleven other quarantine stations had been established around Australia to stop ships bringing in diseases from all over the world. Passengers and crew had to stay at the stations until such time as there were no new cases of the disease, and until the incubation period (the time for catching the disease and spreading it around) was over.

Treatment in those times was still fairly basic. For example, during a smallpox outbreak in 1881, a father was only allowed to visit his dying daughter after a raw, peeled onion had been placed between them. The fumes from the onion were thought to prevent the spread of the disease. In addition, there were carbolic sprays to kill the germs, and linseed oil poultices to put on the smallpox sores, which would have done little to stop the terrible pain and itching.

Passengers arriving at a quarantine station were forced to shower in a solution of phenol (carbolic acid) which effectively peeled off a layer of skin. This was thought to get rid of the germs carrying the disease. All clothing and possessions were steam-cleaned in autoclaves or fumigated in formaldehyde or hydrocyanic gas - which meant that even if you survived your stay at the quarantine station, you'd have few clothes fit to wear by the time you came to leave!

The quarantined ship also had to be cleansed. Furniture, curtains, bedding - everything had to be fumigated to stop the spread of disease. At first, sticks of sulphur were burned for 12 hours. In later years, sulphur dioxide gas or hydrocyanic gas was pumped into the hold.

During the 'Spanish flu' epidemic in 1918-19, passengers from infected ships were required to stand in a 'gas chamber' for three to four minutes several times a day, inhaling sulphate of zinc to 'cleanse their lungs' and protect them from infection.

Some old quarantine stations still remain around the world, like Grosse Ile in Canada and Ellis Island in the United States. There are several sites in Australia, in Perth and Albany in WA, in Melbourne and in Sydney. The Sydney quarantine station is the largest, most intact and best preserved quarantine station in the world, and it gives a fascinating insight into the early treatment of plague and disease. You can still see the old buildings, the showers with their peepholes, the 'gas chamber' and the autoclaves.

The lay-out of the station shows the sorts of people who travelled in the past. Wealthy passengers in quarantine were kept in the 'first class quarters', reflecting their first class status on board ship. They had luxurious accommodation, a beautiful dining room, sewing and smoking rooms for ladies and gentlemen respectively, a billiard room, tennis courts and all sorts of entertainment to keep them amused while in isolation. The second and third class passengers lived in a less fancy style, while the steerage passengers, who were mostly Asian, slept in racks of bunks in dormitories in the 'Asian quarters'. They had to cook their meals on an open fire and eat in an open-sided shed.

Quarantine stations are no longer in use, but the recent outbreaks of SARS and the bird flu scare show us that there is still a need to isolate the sick, and that we still don't know everything when it comes to medical treatment. Perhaps, in a hundred years time, people will laugh at our notions of treating cancer or AIDS just as we now laugh at the idea that swallowing a spider wrapped in a raisin will cure a fever, or that fat boiled from the body of a dead criminal and rubbed onto the affected part will cure almost anything at all!

© Felicity Pulman, 2004.

References: Time Tunnels by Valerie Bourke; In Quarantine by Jean Duncan Foley; A Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages by Sherrilyn Kenyon.