13 Fascinating Historical Facts about Isolation and Quarantine

From the creation of calculus to the writing of a classic sci-fi novel, some great things were achieved in isolation.
Chris Young
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The lockdown has been stifling to so many. It can be difficult to stay productive under such trying times. And yet, throughout history, some people have thrived during a period of isolation.

Here are a few interesting facts about isolation and quarantine during past outbreaks, including great ideas born from the measures put in place to fight disease.


1. Isaac Newton changed our understanding of the universe while in isolation

When the Great Plague of London ravaged London starting in 1665, Isaac Newton was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge. During this time, the 23-year-old retreated to his family's farm at Woolsthorpe Manor, approximately 60 miles away from Cambridge.

He studied optics and showed that white light is comprised of all components of the spectrum. A discovery that is integral to our understanding of planets and stars, as it led to the inception of astronomical spectroscopy. 

2. Newton also laid the foundations for calculus 

During the 18 months that Newton was isolated in Cambridge, he did some serious studying, leading to several revolutionary discoveries.

Though his papers were not published until well after the bubonic plague epidemic that led him to seek refuge in Cambridge, Newton also wrote some of his papers on the rules of "fluxions," known today as calculus.

3. The Theory of Gravity was also born during isolation

Isaac Newton's revolutionary Theory of Gravity also found its inception at Woolsthorpe Manor.

13 Fascinating Historical Facts about Isolation and Quarantine
Master Isaac Newton in His Garden at Woolsthorpe, in the Autumn of 1665, Robert Hannah (1812–1909)Source: The Royal Institution, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND)

That is where an apple tree, that is now 400 years old, is famously said to have inspired Newton to ask the question, 'why do apples always fall straight down to the ground?'

4. The Apollo 11 astronauts had to quarantine for two weeks in case they had brought back a "space flu"

The Apollo 11 astronauts were quarantined before and after landing on the Moon. Before the launch of the iconic mission, they were confined for two weeks in case they had picked up any bug — as they couldn't be treated for serious illness in space.

13 Fascinating Historical Facts about Isolation and Quarantine
The quarantined astronauts being visited by Richard Nixon, Source: Public domain/Wikimedia Commons

On returning from the Moon, the astronauts were again quarantined so that, in the very unlikely chance there was an unknown space flu on the Moon, they would not spread it, potentially leading to a pandemic of lunar origin.

5. The first-ever quarantine was actually a "trentino"

In 1348, an outbreak of the bubonic plague spread through big European cities, including Venice and Milan.

13 Fascinating Historical Facts about Isolation and Quarantine
A picture of Dubrovnik, previously known as Ragusa, before 1667, Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Historical documents show that the port city of Ragusa, known today as Dubrovnik, passed legislation in 1377 requiring incoming ships to sit at anchor for 30 days before anyone was allowed to disembark.

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As Ragusa was under Italian rule at the time, the 30-day period became known as a 'trentino' in Italian.

6. The quarantine was raised to 40 days for religious reasons

The word 'quarantine' comes from the Italian words for 40 days, quaranta giorni. Historians say that after the 'trentino' edict in Ragusa (see point 5), doctors and officials were given the authority to impose longer isolation periods, if they deemed it necessary.

It is believed that the 40-day quarantine eventually became the norm because of its religious significance — Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days, and Noah's biblical flood was caused by rain that lasted 40 days and 40 nights.

7. Individuals carrying irregular variations of a disease have been asked to quarantine when there was no outbreak

Mary Mallon, also known by the name of "Typhoid Mary," was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever in the early 20th century. After breaking a vow she made to authorities not to seek employment as a family cook — due to the fact that she was shown to be highly infectious — she was sent to North Brother Island in New York where she was forced to remain in isolation for the rest of her life.

13 Fascinating Historical Facts about Isolation and Quarantine
Mary Mallon in hospital (foreground), Source, Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

Another case, as recent as 2007, saw attorney Andrew Speaker quarantined by public health officials, as he was infected by a rare drug-resistant form of tuberculosis. After Speaker fled the quarantine, he was apprehended by federal authorities, quarantined at a medical center in Denver, and eventually cured.

8. One of the most famous science-fiction novels ever was written by an author in isolation

During a cholera epidemic that affected much of the world, including the United Kingdom, in 1816, Mary Shelley and her new husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, decided to get away to isolate from the deadly disease.

13 Fascinating Historical Facts about Isolation and Quarantine
An illustration from an early edition of Shelley's Frankenstein, Source: Public domain/Wikimedia Commons 

During their confinement, the two read ghastly horror stories to pass the time, leading to the birth of Mary Shelley's classic gothic horror sci-fi novel, Frankenstein.

9. Entire governments have fled past outbreaks and isolated together

A yellow fever outbreak struck the city of Philadelphia in the summer of 1793, during the early years of the United States, History writes. Once the epidemic hit, the entire federal government, including President Washington, made the decision to leave the city.

Much in the same way, King Charles II and his entire court decided to pack up and relocate to Salisbury, England, during "The Great Plague" in 1665.

10. There are two quarantine flags

You might not know that, historically, there are two flags that have been used to signal a quarantine on a ship.

13 Fascinating Historical Facts about Isolation and Quarantine
Source: Denelson83/Wikimedia Commons

A ship arriving at a port, that is under enforced quarantine, should fly the international signal flag LIMA, also known as "Yellow Jack" — a yellow and black flag. 

13 Fascinating Historical Facts about Isolation and Quarantine
Source: Creative Commons/United States Library of Congress

After port authorities remove the quarantine order, the ship must then fly the “free pratique” flag (the international signal flag QUEBEC), which is yellow.

11. Tuberculosis sanatoriums were used as large quarantine facilities during past outbreaks

Isolation hospitals and sanatoriums were part of a decades-long experiment in quarantine construction that took place before the advent of antibiotics, The Atlantic writes.

13 Fascinating Historical Facts about Isolation and Quarantine
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Finnish Museum of Photography

Tuberculosis sanatoriums allowed patients all the treatment, fresh air, and socialization, with others who were ill, that they wanted.

12. The effectiveness of quarantines has been debated for years

While quarantines have categorically been shown to stop the spread of an infection from one person to another, one study in 2004 suggested that no one should have been quarantined for SARS in Canada. Instead, the country should have focused solely on contact tracing.

13. The whole of Toronto was put under a quasi-quarantine during the SARS outbreak

The city of Toronto in Canada was, in fact, placed under a quasi-quarantine after the World Health Organisation (WHO) put it on a list of three destinations people should avoid because of SARS.

As The Independent reported in 2003, the WHO recommended, "that persons planning to travel to these destinations consider postponing all but essential travel."

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