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JOHANNA MAYER: Before we get started, just a quick note about today's word-- quarantine. We've been hearing a handful of terms lately that have sort of technical definitions.
SPEAKER 1: Quarantine.
SPEAKER 2: Quarantine.
SPEAKER 3: Quarantine.
SPEAKER 4: Social distancing.
SPEAKER 5: Self isolation.
SPEAKER 6: In isolation.
JOHANNA MAYER: The CDC will tell you that quarantines are only for people who have been exposed to a contagious disease to see if they get sick. If you're already sick, you call it isolation. So by the CDC definition, Ted Cruz, self quarantining.
TED CRUZ: And just out of an abundance of caution--
JOHANNA MAYER: Tom Hanks, self isolating. In this episode, when we say the word quarantine, we're using a broader definition. We're talking about any kind of separation designed to stop the spread of disease, basically the dictionary definition. OK? Let's get started.
There's a small lonely island that sits in New York City's East River. It's called North Brother Island. No one lives there today. It's just scattered ruins, all wild and overgrown.
But on that island, there used to be a one-room cottage. It was kind of sweet-- little shingles, a neat pointy roof, and a front stoop with three small steps. The cottage isn't there anymore, but the stoop is. And for three years, a nurse would visit every day, leave a tray of food on that stoop, and then scuttle away, avoiding contact at all costs with the woman living inside.
Because the woman who lived in that cottage was Mary Mallon, the infamous Typhoid Mary. And she was under quarantine. From Science Friday, this is "Science Diction." I'm Johanna Mayer. Today, we're talking about the word quarantine.
Quarantine is basically the only thing that anybody can think about these days. And Mary Mallon is probably one of the most famous cases of all time, also one of the longest. She was quarantined against her will in that one-room cottage, not once, but twice for nearly 30 years in all. And she ended up there because in the early 1900s, she'd spread typhoid all over New York City.
Mary was an Irish immigrant and a cook for wealthy families. And her specialty was peach Melba, a concoction of vanilla ice creme, fresh peaches, fruity sauce. Frankly, it sounds delicious. Except when Mary made it, she was probably accidentally lacing it with Salmonella typhi, the bacteria that cause typhoid.
Typhoid doesn't spread through coughing or sneezing. It spreads through contaminated food or drinks, especially when people aren't washing their hands properly after using the bathroom. Mary had no idea that she was infected. She had zero symptoms. But wherever she went, small outbreaks of typhoid came with her-- fever, diarrhea, and for some, death.
And then Mary, oblivious, feeling completely fine, would move on to another family. And the cycle would repeat. But in 1907, it all came to a head.
A man named George Soper had been hired to investigate an outbreak of typhoid on Long Island. And he soon zeroed in on Mary as a likely culprit. And to confirm this theory all George needed were some of Mary's excretions. As he explained in his own accounts, one day, he just strolled up to the house and asked.
GEORGE SOPER: I was as diplomatic as possible. But I had to say that I suspected her of making people sick, and that I wanted specimens of her urine, feces, and blood.
JOHANNA MAYER: Imagine a stranger knocking on your door and just asking for your fecal samples. You might get a little bit testy.
GEORGE SOPER: It did not take Mary long to react to the suggestion. She seized a carving fork and advanced in my direction. I passed rapidly down the long narrow hall through the tall Iron and out through the area and so to the sidewalk. I felt rather lucky to escape.
JOHANNA MAYER: George tried once more after that, another disaster. So he enlisted the help of city health officials. And soon, they showed up at Mary's door, and they brought the cops with them. Mary took off at the sight of them.
They had to tear through the house, the neighboring house, even the roof, before they found her hiding in a cubbyhole under the stairs. And they arrested her. And after they forced her to submit to their tests, confirmed she was infected, they sent her away-- no trial, no conviction, they just vanished her to North Brother Island to quarantine.
Mary Mallon's might be one of the most famous quarantines. But people have been separating the sick from the healthy for literally millennia, from well, before we even understood germs existed and that we could pass them between each other-- in yellow fever and smallpox epidemics, in the Byzantium Empire and 14th century Venice and 18th century Philadelphia, even as far back as the Old Testament. In Leviticus, it says people with leprosy must dwell alone outside the camp.
So quarantine practice is nothing new. But the word quarantine didn't show up until the Middle Ages during the time of the Black Death. The Black Death caused giant boils to erupt on your body and killed about half the people who got it. In one particularly brutal outbreak in the mid 14th century, it's estimated that the plague wiped out one third of Europe's population.
In Venice, the bodies piled up so fast there just wasn't enough land to bury them, so ships would circle the city and collect, not just the dead, but the dying, and dropped the bodies off on nearby islands. Alex Moore, who studies the Black Death and pandemics, has this image burned in his head.
ALEX MOORE: This manuscript from the period said some breathed their last on the boats, some breathed their last in the pits.
JOHANNA MAYER: Some may have even been buried alive.
ALEX MOORE: This is just a [? ship ?] version of "Bring out Your Dead" from Monty Python. [INAUDIBLE].
SPEAKER 7: Bring out your dead.
JOHANNA MAYER: So in the mid 14th century, the plague was just tearing through Europe. And this is where the word quarantine comes in. There was a city called Ragusa, controlled by Venice at the time. Ragusa was a bustling port city-- ships coming in and out, moving goods and people around, bringing the plague with them.
So in the thick of all of this, officials came up with a plan. Any ship that arrived from a plague-infested area goes into lockdown. Nobody's stepping foot of that ship for 30 days. The idea spread, and over time, that 30 days extended to 40. Why 40 days? Why not 20 or 100? Historians have hunches.
The number 40 has religious significance. It's the length of time that Jesus fasted in the desert. It's how long Moses stayed on Mount Sinai. Lent is 40 days. Or they just thought that 40 days seemed like enough time, enough time for everyone on the ship to either clear or die of infection. Whatever the reason, they landed on 40 as the sweet spot.
And if you speak Italian, maybe you can guess where this is going. In Italian, quaranta means 40. So they called this period of isolation quarantino. And in English, quarantino becomes quarantine. So there you go. Ragusa definitely wasn't the first place to establish a quarantine. But the word for the thing that so many of us are experiencing right now, it all goes back to plague-ridden Ragusa to those ship's locked up in port waiting it out.
Throughout history in the face of outbreaks, disease, death, people keep landing on this one solution-- separate the sick and the possibly sick from the healthy, and maybe the healthy will stay that way. But quarantines, they're just one trick in the book. The way that we've responded to pandemics throughout history is almost eerily predictable.
ALEX MOORE: All the things that we've been seeing happening to us, it happened before. So for example, the fact that there is a travel ban--
JOHANNA MAYER: Countries have laid down travel bans for Ebola, even for HIV. And in 14th century Venice, if you were sick, you were not getting in.
ALEX MOORE: [INAUDIBLE] no sick foreigner should be brought to Venice any longer under penalty of imprisonment, to the burning of the vessels, fine, punishment.
JOHANNA MAYER: What about panic buying all that toilet paper and hand sanitizer? Yeah, hoarding is nothing new. During the plague, they had to make laws against people hoarding grain and jacking up the price. Or how about governments chomping at the bit to restart the economy? Yep, it happened in Venice too. When an outbreak of the Black Death finally lifted and things were starting to get better, officials banned black clothing.
ALEX MOORE: And they encouraged everyone to have as happy and festive demeanor and attitude. They claimed that black clothing did not contribute to the liberation of the souls of the dead, while it was more useful to avoid grief and stimulate the economy.
JOHANNA MAYER: And people locking themselves up at home all day getting their food delivered, we didn't invent that either. In Venice, it was actually the government dropping off your supply of wheat and barley. So yes, people were shut inside, and they didn't even have their beloved internet to refresh every 10 seconds. But--
ALEX MOORE: In Venice in particular, there were town criers, which are the Twitter of a pre-modern world, right? They're the people who go around and scream this is what's happening, this is the law.
JOHANNA MAYER: That's kind of what Twitter feels like anyway. And if you're cringing seeing people break social distancing rules, know that people have always broken the dang rules. There's a story from the 1600s of a small town outside Florence, where residents schemed to all break quarantine on the same day. Their big plan, those 17th century rascals-- to have a religious procession to pray for divine intervention from the plague. Social distancing has always been tough.
Staying away from people we love, not being able to go out and live our lives as usual, especially if we feel healthy-- it just feels bad. And it goes against our instincts. People just can not help themselves.
And as for Mary Mallon, she was only human. After those three long, lonely years on North Brother Island, Mary got a break. The city health department realized that as long as she wasn't cooking, she wasn't going to harm anybody. And they released her.
She got to go back to New York to be around people again. But there was one big rule that she wouldn't cook for other people ever again. That was the key condition. So Mary became a laundress, went back to normal life, and fell off the map.
Five years go by, and then there is another typhoid outbreak in New York City. This time, it was in a hospital. Investigators discovered that a cook had started working at the hospital a few months earlier, and her name was Mary Brown. But the other servants had nicknamed her Typhoid Mary.
Doing people's laundry didn't pay the bills the way that cooking did. And remember, Mary was a poor Irish immigrant, single woman, by now in her 40s. So she made a choice. Mary changed her name, and she went back to the career that she knew best. She started cooking again.
So they sent her back to North Brother Island, back to quarantine. But Mary Mallon's second quarantine was a little better than her first. Those first three years on North Brother Island were harsh. Mary says that she was banished like a leper with only a dog for company.
The second time around, life looked a little closer to normal. She was allowed to work. She landed a gig in a lab at the tuberculosis hospital on the island. She made friends with her co-workers. She picked up some hobbies.
And this really stretches the definition of quarantine, but after a few years, they even let her make occasional trips back to the city to visit friends. But she always returned to that island. And that's where she lived until the day she died.
We are in a weird moment in time. And it's tough. There's just no getting around it. We miss people. We miss places. But still, we find little moments of joy. And people have always found those moments.
Mary Mallon took up beading. She once made a necklace of tiny blue glass beads that she gave as a gift to the wife of a friend. For me, it's this giant magnolia tree on the end of my block. It is just heaping with pink blossoms. It's just come out of a long, lonely winter, and it's bursting back to life in its most festive colors.
"Science Diction" is hosted and produced by me, Johanna Mayer. Our producer and editor is Elah Feder. We had an additional story editing from Nathan Tobey and fact checking help from Michelle Harris. Our music was composed by Daniel Peterschmidt. Charles Bergquist played the part of George Soper.
Special thanks this week to Alex Moore, Karl Appuh, and Judith Walzer Leavitt. If you want to learn more about Mary Mallon, we recommend Judith's book, Typhoid Mary, Captive to the Public's Health. As always, we have some bonus info and further reading up on our website. Just go to ScienceFriday.com/diction. Thanks for listening and hang in there.