Penn Student and Mentor Dig Deep Into the History of the Philadelphia Lazaretto

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Media Contact:Madeleine Kruhly | | 215-898-1435July 9, 2013

The Philadelphia Lazaretto is the oldest surviving quarantine hospital in the United States, but its value to historians goes even beyond that. By investigating the facility, “we are trying to reconstruct a whole lost world,” says David Barnes, a professor of history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. And Penn sophomore Daniel Kurland, supported by the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Project, is heavily involved in the project.

Located southwest of the intersection of the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers, the Philadelphia Lazaretto opened in 1801 as a quarantine station for the Port of Philadelphia, the largest United States seaport at the time. Under the orders of a head physician and the quarantine master, vessels were inspected for contagion before traveling to the urban center.

Outbreaks of yellow fever warranted the greatest concern, and Kurland says the ships arriving from epidemic-prone areas were the most likely to be stopped. The detentions occurred during quarantine season, from June to September.

Passengers were confined to the Lazaretto hospital if suspected of contamination, and cargo was stored in a large warehouse. The ships themselves would also be detained and purified before proceeding to the port.

David Barnes became interested in the Lazaretto about seven years ago, and, after his first visit to the property, he searched for written accounts of the hospital’s work. When he was unable to find a single history of the institution, he chose to write one himself.

 “The Lazaretto seemed strange and out of place, as if it spoke of a long bygone era,” Barnes says. “I realized that if anyone was going to write about the Lazaretto, it would have to be me.”

For the first several weeks of his own research, Kurland transcribed the minutes of the Board of Health of Philadelphia, created after the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 to regulate vessel inspection. Kurland focused on the board’s minutes from June to December of 1805 to learn the reasons for detention; he looked into public notices, hospital records, fatality totals and more.

“The Board of Health was concerned with epidemiology and the spread of diseases in Philadelphia,” Kurland says. “It was involved in crafting legislation about vessel entry into the city and therefore regulated the proceedings of the Philadelphia Lazaretto.”

Using the Early American Newspapers database, which includes publications like Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser and the United States Gazette, Kurland has been able to track down each vessel that entered the Port of Philadelphia during the quarantine months of 1801, 1820, 1840, 1860 and 1890.

From these records, Kurland hopes to determine the most frequently imported goods to Philadelphia as well as the ports of origin.

However, as Barnes explains, the goal of the research is to situate the Lazaretto in a larger context.

“By focusing on this one institution, we are trying to reconstruct a whole lost world. We want to know how the Lazaretto operated on a daily basis, but we also see the Lazaretto as a window into Philadelphia and its political, social and economic development,” he says.

For instance, politics often infiltrated quarantine policy. Kurland explains that wealthy individuals tried to get goods into the city center by bypassing the quarantine station. Since these businessmen had political pull, their vessels would frequently continue into the city with minimal inspection, despite possible contamination.

“Quarantine was always highly controversial,” Barnes says. “Everyone hated quarantine, and at best people thought it was a necessary evil.”

Barnes also asked Kurland to research the single legal proceeding against two employees of the Lazaretto: Matthew Van Dusen, the quarantine master, and Thomas Jefferson P. Stokes, the head physician. It was alleged that the two had failed to properly disinfect a ship arriving from Cuba. An outbreak of yellow fever occurred after the ship was let into the port, and it was suspected Van Dusen and Stokes’ negligence triggered the contagion.

After a laborious search, Kurland was able to find a record of the trial in an 1853 Court of Quarter Sessions binder in the City Archives. He discovered that Van Dusen and Stokes were exonerated.

Barnes says that the record tracked down by Kurland is key to his work.

“The significance of the case is really twofold,” Barnes explains. “It gives me some very vivid details about how people perceived quarantine, but it also teaches a broader lesson about public expectations of government and the extent to which officials are held accountable to the general public.”

Kurland says that the Philadelphia Lazaretto also fit into the 18th century’s national debate concerning contagion, which was split into the camps of contagionists and anti-contagionists, the latter of whom believed diseases could not spread from person to person.

“Tides of this anti-contagion fervor would sweep doctors and the Board of Health into reacting to yellow fever in certain ways,” Kurland says. “Patients would be treated as if disease couldn’t be transmitted from person to person.”

Barnes, who is also part of the movement to restore and preserve the Lazaretto, says his book plans to address the misunderstandings that have accrued over time within the field of the history of medicine.

“Historians assume quarantine implies contagion, which is not true at all,” he says. “I want to tease out what physicians really believed and on what basis they believed it and how those beliefs influenced what they did from day to day.”

Kurland’s most recent projects include digging up dirt on the business dealings and personalities of Edward Garrigues, president of the Board of Health in 1799 and 1800, and William Currie, a supporter of the contagionist argument, which Kurland says was unusual for the time.

Kurland is also looking for more data and more controversy on the yellow fever epidemics of 1798 and 1799 to better understand “the attitudes people had regarding epidemics and how society was functioning at the time.”

But he says he’s already made several important realizations in the process of his research.

“Medicine may seem unbiased, but it’s actually a very political institution,” Kurland says. “I’ve also realized that the best people are not necessarily put in charge; elections aren’t always weeding-out processes.”