Connections to the Past: Quarantine in Philadelphia through the Nineteenth Century

Catherine outside by a tree




Associate Professor; Director, Health & Societies Major

Project Summary

During the summer of 2017, I served as a research assistant to Dr. David Barnes in his work on the Philadelphia Lazaretto. Located on Tinicum Island in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, the Lazaretto executed the quarantine laws for vessels entering Philadelphia between 1801 and 1895. Created out of a desperate need to prevent the deadly epidemics that ravaged the city in the summers prior to the first raising of its yellow flag, it persisted through dramatic changes in the physical, political, and epidemiological landscape of the city it protected. One might ask whether quarantine at the Lazaretto “worked,” and though we cannot quite answer that, we can find compelling connections to the vastly different world of public health today.

I started the summer with very little experience doing historical research, especially that involving original documents. Working in the City Archives reading nineteenth-century meeting minutes kept by the Philadelphia Board of Health, I became increasingly comfortable with these kinds of sources, and learned to recognize and transcribe the most relevant sections for my mentor’s work. I also learned to find, explore relationships between, and navigate secondary sources in a new and much more comprehensive way. Notwithstanding my expectation of these skills’ immediate necessity for coursework and research in the future, it was enormously exciting to plunge into the field as I did and to have my understanding of its scope widen so quickly.

Another component of my work this summer was to identify individual immigrants to Philadelphia, specifically those whose entrance to the city included a stop at the Lazaretto. This involved reading digitized versions of the passenger lists that accompany records of almost every vessel. These lists, though they existed for the basic purpose of record-keeping, are surprisingly evocative to examine today. Studying and preserving the Lazaretto can allow us to understand a two-century-old experience of quarantine, and matching actual names and families to that imagined experience brings it all the nearer.