Science Diction: Quarantine

Quarantine is on all our minds lately. But the word goes all the way back to the time of the Black Death.

outline of small white cottage with three steps and scratched writing that says "typhoid mary lived here"
Credit: NYC Municipal Archives/designed by Daniel Peterschmidt and Elah Feder

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Quarantine has been on many of our minds lately. The phrases “shelter in place” and “self-quarantine” have filled up our news, social media, and conversations since the first inklings of the coronavirus pandemic. But this is far from the first time cities and countries have used the practice of physical separation to battle the spread of disease. 

You might think of Mary Mallon, who many know as “Typhoid Mary.” In the early 1900s, she spent nearly 30 years  in a cottage on a small island in New York City’s East River, all to prevent her from infecting others. But we’ve been using quarantine for millenia—well before we even understood germs existed and that they can be transmitted from person-to-person. And the origin of the word stretches all the way back to the mid-14th century, when Europe was swept by one of the biggest losses of human life in history: the Black Death.


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Guest:

Alexander More is a historian at Harvard University and Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Footnotes And Further Reading:

Credits:

Science Diction is hosted and produced by Johanna Mayer. Our producer and editor is Elah Feder. We had additional story editing from Nathan Tobey, and fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt. Charles Bergquist played the part of George Soper.

Meet the Writers

About Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is the host of Science Diction from Science Friday. When she’s not working, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.

About Elah Feder

Elah Feder is a podcast development producer for Science Friday. She co-hosted and produced the Undiscovered podcast. She’s also Science Friday’s resident Canadian.

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