Contesting Contagion: Quarantine in Theory, Practice, and Diplomacy in the Long Nineteenth Century

AHA Session 11
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Columbia Hall 2 (Washington Hilton)
Peter Baldwin, University of California, Los Angeles
Contagion, Controversy, and British Mediterranean Power
Alexander Chase-Levenson, Princeton University
Quarantine Beyond Contagion: The View from the Water's Edge
David S. Barnes, University of Pennsylvania
Peter Baldwin, University of California, Los Angeles

Session Abstract

The nineteenth-century debate about the source and cause of epidemic disease occurred in legislatures as well as medical lecture halls; its stakes were enormous. Anticontagionists believed that atmosphere, bad sanitation, and deleterious habits were the sources of such diseases as plague, cholera, and yellow fever. They opposed conventional contagionism, which held that contact with infected individuals was the cause of epidemic spread. The terms of the debate were long-standing, but what gave the controversy such potency in the nineteenth century was its real-world counterpart: the ever-expanding quarantine system. Quarantine marked off swaths of the globe as infected. It mandated the lengthy detention of passengers, the airing of most commercial merchandise, and the fumigation of mail. It was expensive, onerous, and unpleasant. As trade increased, and borders grew more permeable in an age of steam, quarantine’s critics were legion.

The contagion debate, then, drew in politicians, traders, and bureaucrats as well as doctors. The arguments by partisans on both sides evoked basic questions—What place was there for delay (or risk) in a world increasingly drawn together by steam power? Did imposing a cordon sanitaireidentify a nation as civilized, modern, and healthy or was such a policy anachronistic, misguided, and ineffective? How did the debates about quarantine influence visions of governmental responsibility for the provision of health?

In keeping with this year's theme of “Disagreement, Debate, and Discussion,” our panel examines how doctors, politicians, and reformers addressed these questions. We examine how the contagion debate operated in different national contexts and to what effect. Despite these different contexts, the papers are bound together by their exploration of a similar set of political, medical, and ideological dilemmas. Alex Chase-Levenson investigates how the British government confronted both contagionism and anticontagionism in the course of the 1830s and 1840s, and what the debates about quarantine suggest about British relationships with Continental and Mediterranean powers. Birsen Bulmuş takes up the institution of quarantine in the Ottoman Empire, where it was introduced as a novel reform in the 1830s by liberal reformers intent on implementing it as part of their overall modernization program. David Barnes considers how the practice of quarantine in Philadelphia suggests the system was undergirded by a more nebulous idea of “infection,” rather than strict contagion. This helped ensure quarantine’s relative durability despite a hostile American medical consensus. Peter Baldwin, who has worked extensively on the relationship between state power and the contagion debate in comparative approach, will chair the panel and provide the comment.

All of the talks show that the contagion debate’s intensity sprung from the range of dilemmas it evoked. We expect this panel to appeal not only to historians of medicine and epidemic disease, but also to historians interested in nineteenth-century globalization, the history of diplomacy, and comparative contexts of nineteenth-century state-building. Further, given the regional diversity provided by panel members, this panel should appeal to historians of the US, Britain, the Mediterranean, and the Ottoman Empire.

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